Giving Them the Index Finger

Friday, December 23, 2011 /by

Before his French Open semifinal with Roger Federer, Novak Djokovic was interviewed in the corridor leading to Court Philippe Chatrier. As the man who had yet to lose a match in 2011 began to answer the first question, he stopped for a split-second to take a breath. I thought: Uh, oh, he’s in trouble, the breathing problems are back!

It wasn’t Djokovic’s day. His streak had made him the talk of the tennis world, and even the mainstream sports world, in the weeks leading to Paris. But when he walked on court for his semi and put his hand up tentatively to the audience, all the best player of 2011 got back was a tepid cheer mixed with a boo or two. Like the low gray sky above the stadium, it felt like an ominous start.

But it made for a great match, the best of the season in my opinion. The famous French crowd was viciously enthusiastic in its support of Federer, and while that was tough on Djokovic, it was the edge in the stands and in the air that helped make this the most gripping tennis that I saw in 2011. It’s not easy to sense in these highlights, but it felt like life and death inside Chatrier. Of course, it didn’t hurt that the play was inspired, and that the storyline—aging legend rises up to stop record streak of young rival—was the most compelling of the year.

*****

—Is it a blessing or a curse to have a highlight reel with no commentators? At first it seemed like a bit of a letdown. In the silence, you realize that a good announcer really does bring something to a match. But after a few minutes, I started to watch this clip as if it were a documentary, and that made it better, in my mind, than any of the others I’ve embedded over the last two weeks (though I wish we could see the ball a little more easily). With no narration, the gestures of the players begin to tell their own story. By the end, when the match is over, the final gesture of each player seems that much more dramatic and meaningful.

—My memory is that Djokovic came out tighter than a drum, and maybe he did. This match was played late on a Friday afternoon, after Djokovic had been off for four days, due to the fateful quarterfinal withdrawal of Fabio Fognini. What I didn’t remember was that he went up a break at 4-2 in the first set. In this clip, anyway, Djokovic doesn’t appear as nervous as I remember, and comes out hitting just about as cleanly as he had been all season.

—Federer was in an unsual position for him: He was the pursuer, rather than the pursued, and you can see that he relished the reversal. I’m not sure I’ve ever seen such an aggressive posture from him, and so many fist-pumps in one match. While Federer goes down early, there’s a bit of foreshadowing here, when he smacks a strong backhand up the line and pumps his fist. It’s a shot that will help him at the end as well.

—There were signs of tension in Djokovic that had largely disappeared for most of 2011 to that point. At 4-2, Federer hits a winner; while Djokovic is still up a break, he throws his hands out in frustration, as if the world is against him. He hadn’t been making those gestures, or showing that frustration much during his streak.

—Soon, Djokovic also has the crowd on his back. They begin to jeer him as he bounces the ball before serving, so Djokovic tells the chair umpire that he was at the line in “15 seconds.” The result? Louder booing. (This is when the clip really begins to feel like a movie to me). Not surprisingly, Djokovic’s netted forehand to lose the first-set tiebreaker gets the biggest roar of the day, and a big roar from Federer as well.

—We don’t see much of it here, but it was full flight time for Federer in the second, and the wind was almost visibly knocked out of Djokovic. All of his nightmares were coming true—he wins Madrid, he wins Rome, and now he's going to lose at the one that really counts, in Paris. Federer is serving well and controlling rallies with his forehand. Djokovic said he “slowed down” in the second, and it was as true from a mental standpoint as is was from a physical one.

—Federer’s 2011 pattern holds true at the start of the third set. As he did against Tsonga at Wimbledon and against Djokovic at the U.S. Open, he stumbles after winning the first two sets. Djokovic, with nothing to lose, loosens up and begins to take it to Federer, the way he had in his straight-set wins in Melbourne and Dubai. In the points shown here over the last two sets, he’s typically the aggressor.

—Watching the closing games again, it seems to me that Djokovic was closer to winning the fourth set, and perhaps the match, than I had thought at the time. He serves for the set at 5-4, and in general, as far as these clips go, he’s the one doing the dictating. You can feel him getting closer to breaking through and turning it around for good. While Federer lost two match points at the U.S. Open, Djokovic must have been almost as pained and bitter at losing this one. For stretches of the fifth, it appeared to be his for the taking.

—At the time, I said that Federer won this with defense, and when I think of this match, I still see him swooping and sliding from sideline to sideline to track down Djokovic’s best stuff, and winning quite a few of those points. Unfortunately, we don’t see many of them here. What we do get are two crucial flick, counter-punched backhands that Federer sends past his charging opponent up the line. Both helped keep the momentum at least on equal terms as it got darker and it became clear that this was going to be the last set of the day (it was much darker than it appears here). The darkness added a layer of desperation—Djokovic knew it was win or go home, and Federer wanted to get it done without having to come out again the next day (though he stated otherwise later).

—Djokovic has a break point at 5-5, but we don’t see what happens. An ace, perhaps?

—The French fans like to get involved, and there’s no question they helped Federer. But early in the fourth-set breaker, they helped lose him a point by cheering a good shot of his too soon. Djokovic got it back and Federer missed the next ball.

—We’ve talked about the Shot, Djokovic’s return while down match point at the Open, and how the history of the men’s season would be different if he’d missed. Here, at 6-5 in the tiebreaker, on another match point, Federer comes up with a shot of similar significance. There was a feeling in the arena that he reared back just a little more to smack the ace that ends it—the ball landed with a loud thud against the back tarp. If Federer doesn’t hit that serve at that moment, a serve that the game’s best returner can’t touch, there’s a decent chance that Djokovic wins the calendar-year Grand Slam. Either way, unlike their U.S. Open semi, this one got a properly climactic finale.

—And then Federer wagged his finger. He did something similar two years earlier in Madrid after ending a five-match losing streak to Nadal, and he did it here after ending a three match losing streak to Djokovic. Both times, part of the message was, “Not so fast, I’m still around.” It’s not shown on this clip, but at that moment Paul Annacone was pointing at Federer in a slightly goofy, “you’re the man” kind of way. I’m not sure who pointed first, or who was reacting to whom.

At the time, the finger wag made me feel sorry for Djokovic, but looking at it again, Federer’s gesture fits with this moment and this match, with the spectacle of that day. Federer had played with an edge all afternoon, and it had brought him his biggest win in a year—now it was time to let it out. As I’ve written many times, I like the camaraderie and humility of today’s male players, but I also miss the edgy, strutting showmanship of the old days. This was as close to Jimmy Connors as Roger Federer will ever get, and in that moment—a moment of vindication and bottled-up brashness released—he was, in my opinion, as compelling a character on the pro tennis stage as he’s ever been.

—I wondered, as Djokovic walked to the net, how he would handle this defeat. Give him credit. He had just lost the streak, a shot at the No. 1 ranking, and his bid for his first French Open, and he’d seen the wagging finger. In his presser afterward, Djokovic at one point stopped, shook his head, and said, “It hurts so bad to lose.” No one could rightfully have blamed him if he’d given Federer a polite handshake at the net and walked away, the way, say, both Federer and Nadal did when they lost to him at the U.S. Open. But that wasn’t how Djokovic was going to play it: He went in for the hug and the backslap anyway.

—I’ll finish with a story from the stands that might give you an idea of what it was like in Chatrier that afternoon. I was sitting in the front row of the press seats next to a man I’d never seen before. He had a credential, but he was obviously a tennis fanatic rather than a reporter. Which was nice, because he registered all of a fan’s excitement at what he was getting to see. Late in the fourth set, Federer and Djokovic played a titanic point that Federer eventually lost. The fans were up and down and up and down, and they let out a storm of noise when it ended—it felt like a riot was about to break out. At that moment, my neighbor’s phone rang, loudly. He fumbled around in a panic to find it and eventually answered with a loud, impatient “Hello!” in a European accent. He nodded as his friend on the other end of the line spoke, and then he quickly interrupted.

“I know, I saw it, I’m here.”

Pause as his friend spoke.

“I’m here!"

Pause.

"Yes, at the match!"

Pause. More vigorous nodding. Finally, he put his hand around his mouth and yelled:

I'm AT Roland Garros!!! I'm AT Roland Garros!!!

Silence. His friend was speechless.

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