NEW YORK—In the end, it will probably be remembered for “The Game.” “The Game” occurred at two sets apiece and 1-game all.
With No. 9 seed Stanislas Wawrinka serving, he and world No. 1 Novak Djokovic contested a 21-minute, 30-point game in which Wawrinka fought off no fewer than five break points (and squandered seven game points) before finally holding for a 2-1 lead. The game was an exhilarating, exhausting cliffhanger that kept the packed stadium on this crisp, autumnal afternoon in a state of perpetual and escalating disbelief.
After what would prove to be the penultimate point, Wawrinka goosed the crowd, urging them to extend their ovation. Never one to be outdone, Djokovic played conductor himself, whipping up the packed house even more. Finally, chair umpire Enric Molina had to subdue the crowd, “Ladies and gentlemen, players are now ready.”
It was a welcome moment of levity that let the entire stadium exhale, including Wawrinka, who finally won the game moments later with a serve down the T that drew a reply into the net. But it also proved to be Wawrinka’s final triumph in this up-and-down five-setter. In the end, after four hours and nine minutes, Djokovic emerged with the win, 2-6, 7-6 (4), 3-6, 6-3, 6-4.
Wawrinka was playing in his first Grand Slam semifinal, and the historical deck was stacked against him. He was 0-12 against world No. 1s, and Djokovic ruled their head-to-head record 12-2 (7-1 on hard courts), with Wawrinka’s lone win coming way back in 2006.
The two also played a five-hour match in the fourth round of this year’s Australian Open that Djokovic won 12-10 in the fifth set. Wawrinka has a habit of playing top players close, then blinking first at crucial moments. That didn’t happen on Thursday, when he obliterated defending champion Andy Murray in straight sets in the quarterfinals, and Wawrinka had recently pointed to his close loss to Djokovic in Australia as a personal harbinger of what he could achieve on the tennis court.
Backing up his bullishness, the Swiss drew first blood, as Djokovic, although the far more accomplished player, began the match the shakier of the two, double-faulting to set up a break point in his second service game, which Wawrinka converted. He would break Djokovic twice more in that set, taking it 6-2.
Wawrinka’s strategy was reminiscent of the game duck-duck-goose as he patiently rallied from the backcourt, mixing off-pace groundstrokes, slice, and airing out the ball … then striking without warning by unloading on a shot. The strategy seemed to keep Djokovic off-balance and repeatedly earned Wawrinka the upper hand.
Wawrinka went up a break in the second set as well, and he extended it to a 4-3 lead when, break point down, he shanked a forehand, allowing Djokovic to pull even to 4-all. Those who remember this duo’s Australian Open epic could be forgiven for feeling a fatalistic twinge at that moment, because Wawrinka led that January contest 6-1, 5-2, when the Serb roared to life, bagging five straight games and evening the eventual five-setter at a set apiece. This time, Djokovic was able to eke out the second set in a tiebreaker in which Wawrinka faltered, committing a double-fault to hand Djokovic a 4-2 lead that he would never recover from.
The third set, with both players clawing for a 2-1 lead and the upper hand, produced some of the most sensational rallies of the afternoon, including a 29-stroke rollercoaster of a point that ended when a slice from Wawrinka drew a Djokovic error into the net. It kicked off a run of nine straight points for Wawrinka, and minutes later was upped by a 35-stroke affair that ended when Djokovic, who usually prevails in such face-offs, bailed out with a drop shot that failed to clear the net.
Both players wore their hearts on their short sleeves today: Djokovic occasionally screamed with frustration as Wawrinka refused to wilt, repeatedly hammering cross-court forehand winners out of nowhere and showing an increasing willingness to fire down-the-line backhands that often touched down for perfect landings in the paint. He also (in Serbian) ordered his coach Marian Vadja to “shut up,” because he’d already received a warning for coaching. For his part, Wawrinka received a warning for ball abuse early in the third set, and then a point penalty when he smashed, then bent a racquet in half early in the fourth set after missing a routine backhand passing shot.
An unfortunate turning point occurred late in the fourth set when, with Djokovic leading 4-1, Wawrinka left the court for a medical time out. Television reporting revealed that he had suffered an upper right thigh injury and had it strapped. Indeed, his movement appeared somewhat hampered, especially when required to move forward to chase down drop shots, and Djokovic won the fourth set 6-3.
And then, at 1-all in the final set, came “The Game.” Wawrinka seemed on the verge of holding routinely, setting up game point with a monstrous forehand winner, but then double-faulted to set up the first of an eventual five break points. Throughout the next 24 points, the two took turns foiling each other, or themselves, as the tension slowly mounted until the game climaxed with a grab bag of a point, one that finally ended when a Wawrinka forehand drew a short reply from Djokovic—which led to the now famous ovations and then the successful game-point conversion by the Swiss.
In the on-court interview, Djokovic said that the audience probably had the same feeling he did, that whoever won that game would win the match. But the opposite outcome soon began to develop when, after Djokovic’s next hold, he broke Wawrinka. It was a blow from which Wawrinka couldn’t recover, as he lost the final set 6-3.
Wawrinka, too, was granted an on-court interview, and said it had been an amazing tournament for him. But it also has to hurt, and the entire stadium seemed to feel for him, treating him to one more lengthy ovation. He took a step forward to his first major semifinal, but those historical numbers, including a second five-set loss to Djokovic in a major this year, just got a little more lopsided. At 28, one begins to have that sinking feeling that his will remain his pattern for the rest of his career, although—who knows?—perhaps he’ll take more positives than negatives into the indoor fall season.
Djokovic, as he often does these days, said it best in his interview: “These matches are what we fight for and what we live for.”
IBM Stat of the Match: As if this match wasn’t enough of a heartbreaker for Wawrinka, one hopes he’ll never learn the total number of points won. It was the same for both players: 165.
IBM is a proud sponsor and official technology partner of the U.S. Open. For more information on this match, visit IBM's SlamTracker.