NEW YORK – Those who were disappointed with what they thought would be a high-level fight between Floyd Mayweather and Andre Berto on Saturday night probably could have found solace in Sunday’s heavyweight U.S. Open men’s final.
In one corner you had world No. 1 and nine-time Grand Slam winner Novak Djokovic, and in the other, Roger Federer, world No. 2 and winner of 17 Grand Slam titles. Djokovic, 28, playing in his sixth U.S. Open final, had won the title only once. Federer, 34, had won it five times but hadn't been to a final in Flushing Meadows in six years, and hadn’t won a Grand Slam singles title since Wimbledon 2012. Going into the match, their head-to-head record was 21–20 in favor of Federer. The Swiss was the only man to have beaten Djokovic in all four majors and likewise, the Serb was the only man to have beaten Federer in the Grand Slam quartet. It was the perfect setup for a marquee battle between two tennis greats—a match ESPN could have easily charged viewers $49.99 for on Pay Per View.
After a three hour rain delay, 23,000 fans—including Hollywood A-Listers Robert Redford, Sean Connery, Bradley Cooper, Hugh Jackman and David Beckham—filled the seats in Arthur Ashe for Sunday’s final to see if the head games would subside and if the big serves and returns would prevail. They were not disappointed. It was a high-octane slugfest full of drama, body shots, blood, sweat and tears. After more than three hours Djokovic prevailed, defeating Federer 6–4, 5–7, 6–4, 6–4 to claim his third major title of the season and 10th overall.
The rivals are polite when in each other’s company but are far from being friends. In fact, their interactions could be described as more cordially cold than warm and fuzzy. On Sunday, their 42nd matchup once again pitted Federer’s classic serve and volley against Djokovic’s wicked backhand return. It also had tongues wagging about just how much we would see Federer’s newly minted SABR—Sneak Attack By Roger, a second serve sneak run to the to the net—move. The tactic, which involves rushing toward the net at the moment of a second serve and chipping back the ball, rattled Djokovic in Federer’s 7–6(1), 6–3 Western & Southern Open title win over him in Cincinnati last month.
Djokovic’s coach, six-time Grand Slam winner Boris Becker, described the move as “almost disrespectful.” Djokovic hinted that the ploy was a bit amateurish. But Federer innocently countered the criticism by saying that the SABR is a legitimate shot, which he showcased in his straight sets dismissal of fellow countryman Stan Wawrinka in the U.S. Open semifinals on Friday evening.
"It's not disrespectful," said Federer. "I'm actually standing in position when they are serving, and then only once they toss it, that's when I run so they don't actually really see me. As long as it's in the rules, I think you should be able to use it."
In Sunday’s final, Federer got off to a slow start, needing 16 points in eight minutes in the match’s opening game to hold serve. Then, serving at 2–1 in the set, Djokovic lost his footing and took a nasty fall on the damp court, badly skinning his right elbow and knee and sending a spray of blood down his arm. He went on to lose six of the next seven points before settling down and breaking Federer twice to win the first set 6–4. In his previous six matches, Federer had only been broken two times and had not dropped a set.
Enter the SABR. In Djokovic’s first service game in the second set Federer rushed the net on the Serbian’s second serve for a chip volley to win the point. The move seemed to relax Federer a bit and delighted the crowd, which erupted into its first round of R-O-G-E-R chants of the evening. Still, for all of its pre-match hype and critique, Djokovic seemed mostly unfazed by the move, causing Federer to only use it eight times—to which he won four points—throughout the evening.
“I still think it [SABR] worked well,” Federer said after the match. “It’s worked well for me and I plan to use it more in future matches. Actually, I probably should have used it more tonight because they were definitely plenty of second serve opportunities where I could have used it.”
The remainder of the set was a hard-hitting grudge match, as one of Djokovic’s service games lasted almost 15 minutes and included seven deuces and two match points against him. Throughout the set the crowd was overwhelmingly pro-Federer, cheering every one of the Swiss’s points while frequently booing Djokovic. In one instance, the crowd brazenly cheered a Djokovic double fault, which seemed to embarrass Federer, although he later admitted that he’s seen even worse New York crowds in his favor. When Federer broke Djokovic to win the set and level the match at one apiece, the crowd’s roar could easily be heard at nearby Citi Field.
“Regarding the crowd, look, I mean, you know, there was a lot of support for Roger,” Djokovic said. “There was some support for me, for sure, but I tried to focus on the ones that were supporting me. I can't, you know, sit here and criticize the crowd. I think it's logical to expect that a great player and a champion like Roger has the majority of the support anywhere I play him. You know, I would say super majority of places around the world are going to give him that support.”
The third set saw the two players trade breaks back and forth before Djokovic finally closed it out at 6–4. Again the crowd sprayed Djokovic with boos as he celebrated taking the set, while Federer slowly walked to his chair with his head down, seemingly winded and out of gas. Federer then started the fourth set with seven unforced errors to go down 2–0. Serving for the match at 5-3, it looked as if Djokovic was ready to finally dismiss the Swiss and bid the raucous crowd adieu. However, Federer was not yet done and broke back to make the score 5–3 before eventually succumbing to Djokovic’s forehand to lose the set 6-4 give the Serbian his second U.S. Open title. The two have now played each other 14 times in Grand Slam tournaments, more than any other men in the Open era.
Still, aside from not being able to master the Djokovic’s powerful return, Federer’s downfall can also be chalked up to his inability to close out key games, squandering 19 break point opportunities. He also committed 54 unforced errors to Djokovic’s 37.
“I had too many break chances that I didn’t capitalize on,” said Federer. “One after the other, after the other. I should have done better and could have done better. I know why I lost the match very clearly the moment I sat down at 5–2 in the fourth and after the match was over.”
After the final point, Djokovic turned to the crowd and gave a deliberate “How You Like Me Now” stare, before climbing the seats to embrace his family and coaches.
“It's been an incredible season. I'm very fortunate to experience the great success I’ve had this year,” Djokovic said. “Sitting down here with this trophy and reflecting on what I have achieved this year, it's quite incredible."
Aside from the win, Djokovic’s crowning moment of the night may have been seeing his friend, actor Gerard Butler, sitting in the crowd.
“I actually sent him a photo and a message last night. I was watching his 300 movie last night, and so one of the things when I went to my box when I embraced all my family and team, I looked at him and said, ‘THIS IS SPARTA!’ It felt great.”