NEW YORK – There had been too many errors, too many opportunities offered and frittered away, and now came the moment when everyone, including Roger Federer, understood: There would be no return, after three years out, to the Grand Slam winner’s circle. He would not solve the man who has so often denied him on the biggest stages. He could not give the howling crowd in Arthur Ashe Stadium what it so desperately wanted. The ball hung there, way above the court. It was unlike any that you’ve seen him hit.
The paeans to Federer’s physical grace fill volumes, of course; the Swiss maestro could make laundry day look like a night at the opera. But now, down two sets to one and serving at 2–4, 40–30 in the fourth, another frenetic rally had come down to Novak Djokovic’s short lob. Federer backpedaled, but not enough, then uncorked an overhead that can only be called clumsy. The ball caromed off his racket frame, fluttered high in the air; Federer watched it like a boy mourning his lost balloon. Soon came, yes, another netted forehand, another Djokovic pass for the key second break. Sitting down, then, Federer knew he had lost. Everyone knew.
“I should never have been down in the first place, two sets to one and 5–2,” he said, before going full Spicoli. “That was a bummer there.”
Still, Federer kept coming. “That’s who Roger is,” Djokovic said. “That’s why he has won so many Grand Slam titles.” But despite one last surge, despite forcing Djokovic to coolly fend off three break points before succumbing, 6–4, 5–7, 6–4, 6–4 in the 2015 U.S. Open final, it had become clear that the 34-year-old Federer again had no sustained answer for the No. 1 player, not when it matters most. Djokovic, 28, has now beaten Federer in five of their last six major matches, and with his tenth Grand Slam title he crept ever closer to Federer’s all-time record of 17.
“Well, we got to double-digits,” Djokovic said after Sunday had passed into Monday—but winning his second U.S. Open is hardly the end of what he calls “a wish and a mission.” His surprise loss to Stan Wawrinka in the French Open final may have derailed Djokovic’s calendar Grand Slam, but his 2015 campaign is now surpassed only by Jimmy Connors’ 1974, John McEnroe’s ’84, Federer’s 2006 and his own 2011 in the all-time annals.
“That’s why I’m playing this sport, you know,” Djokovic said. “I enjoy it, I love it, have passion for it, and then fight for the biggest trophies. As long as there is this fire in me, I will be coming back.”
And make no mistake: He’s tracking history now. If Djokovic keeps up his current pace, he might well be taking aim at Federer’s mark. “He’s averaging two a year now: why shouldn’t he do it for the next three years?” says six-time Slam champion Mats Wilander. “I have no idea. He’s going to catch Roger. I think he’s The Man.
"There’s no player he doesn’t like playing. There’s no surface he doesn’t like playing on. He has a kid and a wife and if he’s that humble now after that win, that tells me he’s not really playing for the present. He’s playing to be known as the best player of all time.”
But whether Djokovic would ever be welcomed as such is another thing entirely. Despite a sharp sense of humor and unassailably respectful behavior toward his peers since becoming a tour force, Djokovic still lacks the fervent support accorded to Federer and Rafael Nadal. That the crowd of 22,771 wanted him to lose Sunday was obvious and, Djokovic said, understandable given Federer’s stature. But his body language—all roundhouse fist-pumps and glares—showed that he was fighting more than the greatest player in history. It’s rare for a No. 1 to play second fiddle, but Djokovic spent much of the fortnight answering questions about everything, it seemed, but him.
“There are parts of the world where they only speak about Novak Djokovic; we shouldn’t forget,” said Boris Becker, Djokovic’s coach. “Obviously having Serena play for history, everybody talks about her. On the men’s side you have Roger, the greatest of all, so anybody who plays in their time is struggling getting headline news. If it bothered Novak, maybe he wouldn’t be as successful as he is. Maybe he thrives on it. Maybe he likes to be, a little bit, ‘Me Against the World.’ It brings the best out of him.”
It certainly hasn’t hurt. With Nadal fading and Andy Murray still searching, what was once the Big Four has shrunk now to, as former Wimbledon champ Pat Cash puts it, “the big 2½.” After Djokovic dispatched Federer in July’s Wimbledon final, Federer responded by becoming only more aggressive. A new tactic—SABR, for Sneak Attack By Roger—became the wonder of the hardcourt season, and left Djokovic rattled.
“He was elevating his game,” Djokovic said. “Now he came up with a different shot, as well, the shot that nobody has ever seen. It’s been working well against me in Cincinnati and also here. He’s just not going away. He’s not dropping his level too much. He’s always going to be out there making you play your best if you want to win.”
Federer utilized SABR—meeting a second serve near the service line, then rushing the net—eight times during Sunday’s match, winning four of the exchanges. Tennis usually moves too fast to see how players think, but seeing his timing and Djokovic’s responses—a 104 mph serve into the body or a well-placed lob here, a double-fault or errant backhand pass there—was like watching two ace debaters go point-counterpoint.
“You have to play them perfectly, so I could have won even more,” Federer said. “Who knows? Maybe I should have played even more of it. I did get many more looks on the second serve as the match went on.”
Regardless of whether SABR catches on with the rest of the tour, for Federer fans it’s a good sign. “It shows that he’s still trying to win Grand Slams,” said former pro Taylor Dent. “Federer went through a time where his game, when it came up against Nadal, Murray and Djokovic, started losing an awful lot. He’s searching for a way. This might be the answer to break them; it might not. But he’s not saying, ‘They’re too good’ and he’s not doing this to beat 90% of the draw. He’s doing this to beat those three guys who were beating him.”
Whether or not he’s successful, it’s only appropriate that Federer broke out the tactic in New York. More than any major, the Open’s sub-themes always boil down to tumult, toil and change. The new roof over Ashe will be in place for next year’s tournament, so it’s only right that bedeviling rain delayed the men’s final for three hours, tightening the screws on players and officials one final time. Djokovic was cruising in the first set when he tumbled on the damp court; he played on with elbow and knee bleeding.
“I needed two, three games, really, to kind of regroup,” he said. “The scratches I have all over the body, they are wounds basically.”
Then, as it does each year, a brisk wind blew in for the first time all fortnight. It tasted of fall. It reminded you that nothing lasts, that time makes great players good and unpopular players lovable. By the time Djokovic finally walked off court Sunday, New Yorkers were yelling, “We love you, Novak!” and “You’re the best, man!”
Just past midnight, Federer walked out of the gates still in his tennis shorts. A few voices called, “Roger…,” across the parking lot as he opened the car door, and he lifted his head. But that was all they had.