NEW YORK—What do you get when you pack 22,000 Roger Federer fans together and let them tailgate through a rain delay for three hours? One very loud tennis crowd. Just how loud it was going to get inside Arthur Ashe Stadium on Sunday night was obvious from the moment that Federer was introduced. Jimmy Connors, Andre Agassi, Pete Sampras: None of those home-country heroes inspired the sound and fury that Federer did.
Yet as the match began, it quickly became clear that the man across the net from Federer, Novak Djokovic, was probably going to be the player and the athlete to watch through this evening. Djokovic is 15 pounds lighter than Federer, and the difference was obvious as they scrambled across their respective baselines in the early going. As many have remarked over the last two weeks, Federer hardly appears to have lost a step at 34. But it was Djokovic who was the bouncier and spryer player. Federer, after playing rings around his opponents for two weeks in New York, had finally met his athletic match. More important, he was in his prime.
After that cacophonous, long-delayed introduction, it seemed only logical that Federer would come roaring out of the gate with his traditional 30-second opening service hold. Instead, he was off-kilter and looked nervous. He missed a forehand into the net, he missed a forehand long, he double faulted, he missed two more forehands into the net. Even when he won a point with his serve, Djokovic read it, and was on it. While Federer eventually held in that game, he was broken in the next one. It was still early, but a tone had been set. Djokovic, with his back ramrod straight, his shots crisp, and his sneakers virtually smoking as he scraped them across the baseline, had already quieted the crowd—to the degree that it could be quieted—and dug in for a long fight. That was ominous news for Federer; since 2010, he was 2-5 against Djokovic in three-out-of-five-set matches.