How do you know when a tennis match was exciting? Here’s one way: More than three months after it was played, long after you learned the final score and you’d already written a few thousand words about it, you still find yourself leaning forward as you watch the rallies at 5-5 in the fifth set, anxious to see what’s going to happen next. The five-set U.S. Open epic between Novak Djokovic and Roger Federer was voted the No. 1 match of the season by the ATP, and it will probably be the one that’s remembered the longest—when you type in “djok” on YouTube, “djokovic federer us open 2011” immediately comes up. It’s my personal No. 2 for both men and women (see the rest of my list here), but no match on either tour was as spine-tingling. That sounds like a cliché, but sitting in Ashe Stadium during the last few games, that’s pretty much how it felt. Tennis is at its best when you feel like the two players are out on a high wire together. That’s how this one was for the whole fifth set. One guy almost fell; the other finally did.
—It started a little slam-bang. The first set was close and dramatic and solidly played, but it wasn’t quite at the level of their first sets in the Australian Open and French Open semis. Those two, each of which ended in a close tiebreaker, proved to be decisive; the winner went on to win the match. And it appeared for about two hours that this one would be decisive as well. You got the sense that Djokovic had a bad case of déjà vu when he fought back to 6-6 only to lose it on a good Federer backhand. After the match, the Serb admitted that he “didn’t want another Roland Garros” to happen. He didn’t want Federer to carve another flaw in his otherwise flawless season.
—Federer, as usual, is at his best front-running in the second set. He’s more aggressive with his backhand, both down the line and crosscourt, and he ends a lot of points at the net, often with swing volleys. He breaks Djokovic with another good backhand, and the Serb, who is pulling up too quickly on his forehand and leaving them short, starts to hang his head. I thought that Federer had cruised in this set, the way he cruised in the second set of their French Open semi, but Djokovic digs himself out of his doldrums and breaks him back for 3-3. One sign of Federer’s confidence: At 4-4, 30-30, he takes a towering lob out of the air and drills it without hesitation. It didn’t appear he would lose this one.
—As Federer said afterward, Djokovic was “going to get his teeth into the match” at some point. It’s interesting what shot Djokovic uses to do that—it’s a familiar one. At 1-0 and deuce in the third, he takes a 95-m.p.h. serve out wide to his forehand and snaps the return back crosscourt and into the corner for a winner. “This is his strength,” Luke Jensen says in the booth, and Djokovic was prepared to go to it on the biggest points on this day. We now know it as the Shot, but I hadn’t realized until I watched these highlights, as well as the highlights of his match with Nadal in Miami, how many times Djokovic goes to that seemingly all-or-nothing play, and how many times he comes back with it all.
—Djokovic is off to the races for the next two sets. His forehand finds the corners, and his backhand down the line is as lethal as ever. Federer gets more passive, going to the slice backhand that he’s used so effectively over the years against so many other opponents. From the Aussie Open on this year, though, that wasn’t a play that worked against Djokovic. He got low for those slices and hit them aggressively.
Federer continues with the slice in the fourth set and is broken right away. By 1-2, he’s slowing down, and he doesn’t do much for the rest of the set. He really does appear to be tired, which we’re not used to seeing from him. Still, Federer rights himself when he must.
For much of the fifth set, I believed that the turning point, when the match was eventually written up, was going to be the seemingly innocuous end of the fourth. Djokovic had a chance to break to finish it at 5-1, but Federer, despite hitting some shots flat-footed, hung on, and was able to start the fifth on his serve. He held in that opening game, stopped Djokovic’s momentum, and found some energy—it's amazing what winning a few points will do for you. It seemed that the “wily veteran,” as Jensen calls him, had found a way out. Of course, as we know now, there was one more turning point to come.
—As the fifth begins, Djokovic is also laboring, but the two combine for some of the best tennis of the day through the first six games. Winner is met with winner, hold is met with hold. There’s a slow-mo of one Federer forehand that shows just how rapidly everything happens on that shot. It isn’t so much effortless, as it’s usually described, as it is incredibly fast from set up to follow through.
The wily veteran breaks at the right time, 4-3, and takes the balls to serve it out. As Federer said afterward, “he had it all set up.” We don’t see it here, but when Djokovic gets down 40-15, double match point, he gives the pro-Federer crowd a few sarcastic head nods, and then rips the Shot. It was aimed at the audience, and Djokovic’s own sense of frustration, as much as it was his opponent. But as we know from re-watching this match, it wasn’t an unusual play for him. When it goes in, he asks for a little applause himself.
My new favorite moment of this match: Djokovic leaning down to return serve, having just hit a return winner but still down another match point in the semis of the U.S. Open, and smiling. Smiling, no longer sarcastically, at the moment.
—We miss the tough return Djokovic makes on that point and skip right to Federer’s dismal, stunning double-fault to lose the game. We also miss most of the errors that Federer throws in after that, errors that I could see coming at the time. It was a sad way to end a classic match: The magic had left the wand.
—Afterward, Djokovic yells to his box and takes a request to dance; it seems, judging from this clip, that he had even won over some of the New York crowd—they certainly give him more love than the fans in Madrid did when he beat Nadal there in May.
Earlier though, as Federer’s last ball floated, despondently, long, Djokovic didn’t overcelebrate. He got up to his opponent quickly and respectfully for the handshake. He knew, as he said a few minutes later, that he’d been lucky.
But that wasn’t all Djokovic had been that day. Last week I wrote these words about the Serb’s famous return, and they can apply to the entire match as well:
Luck or skill, plan or pique, the ball went in and the Serb went on to take the U.S. Open. Another year, it might have gone another way. But this was 2011, and this was Novak Djokovic.