WATCH—Stories of the Open Era – Roger Federer:
Flushing Meadows is tennis’ largest stage, and over the last 50 years, it has been the site of some of the sport’s greatest dramas. This week, we’ll count down the 10 most memorable US Open matches of the Open Era. To follow the countdown, click here.
When are you lucky, and when are you just too good? The 2011 U.S. Open semifinal between Novak Djokovic and Roger Federer set off a debate on the subject that would rage for months—if it ever ended.
A disconsolate Djokovic was down double match point at 3-5 in the fifth set and seemingly on his way out of the tournament when Federer tried to send a first serve wide to his forehand side. It wasn’t as wide as he wanted, and Djokovic, channeling all of his frustration into a knockout swing, made him pay for not hitting his spot. The Serb certainly hit his: He pounced on a forehand and gave it a ride crosscourt; it was an all-or-nothing shot and Djokovic, not for the first time in this type of situation, got it all. Stunned by that return winner, Federer dropped the next four games and the match.
Afterward, Djokovic admitted that he had been fortunate to come away with a win that day, but, “If you’re playing somebody like Roger, you have to take your chances when they’re presented…This is what happens at this stage of a tournament when two top players meet. Just a couple of points decide the winner.”
His opponent had a slightly different take on the subject.
“I didn’t hit the best serve,” an agitated Federer said a few minutes after the match. “But it’s just the way he returns that. It’s just not a guy who believes much anymore in winning. Then to lose against someone like that, it’s very disappointing, because you feel like he was mentally out of it already. Just gets the lucky shot at the end, and off you go.”
At that point, Federer could have been forgiven for being tired of seeing Djokovic send him, and the rest of the tour, off a loser. The previous year, Djokovic had saved match points against Federer on the same court, in the same round, in another fifth set, by going for broke. And he had been even better in 2011. His winning return, lucky or not, was an exclamation point on the Serb’s best season to that point. He won three of four majors, five of eight Masters events, finished 67-4, and, most famously, began the year with a men’s-record 43 straight wins.
Until that stage in his career, the 24-year-old Djokovic had labored brilliantly in the shadows of Federer and Rafael Nadal—but that he emerged for good. Djokovic followed up his semifinal win over Roger on Saturday with a final-round win over Rafa two days later. For most of the next five years, Djokovic would hav the upper hand on both men, and he would put his name alongside theirs in the Golden Age pantheon.
In a sense, The Shot showed us what made prime-era Djokovic so good. As Federer said, when most players launch a low-percentage missile like that, their chances of success are slim. Djokovic, who had missed a similar return at set point earlier in the same match, admitted that it was a risk for him, too. But while it doesn’t take a great player to go for a shot like that, it takes someone special to pull it off as often as he has, on the biggest stages. Luck or skill, plan or pique, the ball went in and the Serb went on to win his first U.S. Open.
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