Djokovic finally tops longtime Open nemesis

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Novak Djokovic

Novak Djokovic (above) outlasted Roger Federer in a five-set marathon Saturday afternoon. (AP)

Novak Djokovic had been waiting three years for this moment. And when Roger Federer’s last forehand attempt sailed long, Djokovic turned to his box in slack-jawed disbelief, then later dropped to his knees and kissed the Arthur Ashe Stadium blue court. Finally, he had triumphed over his longtime U.S. Open nemesis, outlasting the five-time champion in a 5-7, 6-1, 5-7, 6-2, 7-5 semifinal that stretched three hours and 44 minutes on Saturday. After enduring crushing defeats to Federer in the past two semis and the 2007 final, the ’07 Australian Open champ will bid for his second major title on Sunday against Rafael Nadal, who soundly defeated Mikhail Youzhny 6-2, 6-3, 6-4 in the day’s first match.

Djokovic was still in disbelief after scoring his big win against Federer. “It’s one of those matches that you will remember for the rest of your life,” said Djokovic, who is 7-14 lifetime against Nadal. “Not just because you won against one of the best players that ever played this game, but as well coming back from match points down and under the circumstances playing good tennis and winning in the end -- the thriller, you know?”

Djokovic’s reserves of resilience fueled the wall-to-wall action. The third-seeded Serb overcame a lackluster service game (he landed just 62 percent of his first serves in play), cashed in on a little luck (three of his 36 winners skipped off of the net cord), and went for broke on his forehand -- hitting it, he said on the court afterward, “with my eyes closed” in a desperate bid to stave off two Federer match points late in the fifth set.

The opportunities lost had the imperturbable Swiss groping for explanations afterward. “[The match points] feel somewhat empty because you have tried everything, and maybe it was luck,” he said. “Maybe he played well. Maybe you didn’t pick the right shot. Maybe he did. You can’t turn back time.”

Novak Djokovic

Novak Djokovic (above) reacts after knocking off Roger Federer on Saturday in the U.S. Open semifinals after being down two match points. (AP)

Looking back, it’s impossible to overlook those squandered chances, or ignore how eerily similar events played out through the first four sets. In the first and the third sets Federer capitalized on Djokovic’s faulty service games and summoned his own singular brand of spectacular shotmaking to rally from an early 4-2 deficit. In the second and fourth Djokovic took advantage of Federer’s weak energy and waning focus in a pair of blowouts that averaged 29 minutes. “Unfortunately the second and the fourth [sets] just kind of snuck away from me,” Federer said. “I tried to play aggressive, not to give him too much rhythm, and it all came back to me. I let him back in the match.”

But the fifth set was no holds barred. Djokovic used his sweeping forehand to pin Federer deep behind the baseline and send him scrambling from sideline to sideline. Meanwhile, the Swiss countered with much of the same and looked to his serve to bail him out when he couldn’t. Though it was off for most of the day -- he landed a mere 53 percent of his first serves in play -- it was good enough in the seventh game to get him out of four deuce points for a 4-3 hold.

Federer held again in the ninth game and, three unforced Djokovic errors later in the 10th, found himself two points away from breaking for the match. But Djokovic refused to back down this time around. He fought off the first match point in an 11-stroke rally that he won with a swinging volley, staved off the second with crackling crosscourt forehand to get to deuce, then blasted a heavy serve that Federer dumped into the net to hold.

But was Djokovic’s next brave stand in the 11th game that broke Federer for good, setting the stage for the Serb to serve out the match. He quickly fell behind 15-40, launching a backhand wide to set up another break point. But Djokovic rallied to get to match point. The 21-stroke rally that followed ended with Federer’s errant forehand.

Still, Djokovic’s fulfilling win would come at quite a physical and emotional price -- so much so that it begs the question: Does he have anything left in the tank? “Well, I have to,” he said. “It’s the finals of the Grand Slam. It’s definitely [going to be] a tough one.” If Djokovic rises to that occasion the way he did on Saturday, Nadal might find him even tougher.