Federer-Djokovic was a match for the ages

Friday June 3rd, 2011

Roger Federer (above) snapped Novak Djokovic's 43-match win streak and booked a place in Sunday's final. (Jacques Demarthon/AFP/Getty Images)

What are your immediate impressions of Roger Federer’s 7-6(5), 6-3, 3-6, 7-6(5) victory over Novak Djokovic?

That may have been the most significant, dramatic and damn enjoyable match since the 2008 Wimbledon final. There was so much context here. Would Djokovic attain the top ranking and continue his streak? Would Federer make a stand against the New King? Would Federer’s diminishing results continue? No matter how this broke, it was going to tell us an awful lot. For Federer to come out and play a match of this quality was such an eloquent response the murmurs that his time was over that the keg was tapped. And credit Djokovic, for rebounding from a two-sets-to-none deficit and putting himself in a position to serve for a fifth set. Trite as it sounds, tennis was a big winner today.

Also, at least in the U.S., tennis was treated shabbily by the network “partner.” The platform kept changing, different time zones received windows, the planned taped delay was, blessedly, scrapped at the last minute. A real slap in the face and precisely the kind abuse that relegates the sport to the vicious cycle of niche status. (Of course the ratings will be low when you need an MIT engineering degree to figure out how to watch matches!) For the sport to serve up such a gripping and captivating day -- Twitter going nuts, people crowding around TVs in bars -- was tremendously gratifying to those of us who care about the sport.

What specific things did Federer do today that 43 previous opponents didn’t?

Federer is Federer. And if the magic comes less consistently than it once did, there’s still magic. He served well. He was early to the ball. He hit over his backhand. He moved as well as I’ve seen him move this year. Also, Federer had the good fortune of playing Djokovic on this stage. There’s a world of difference between a Wednesday night match at a garden-variety event and the semifinals of a Grand Slam with the No. 1 ranking on the line.

Now that it’s over, put Djokovic’s streak in historical perspective.

In some ways today’s match puts it in perspective. To win more than 40 straight matches -- on different surfaces, in different conditions, in different continents -- against such high-caliber opponents is really such a formidable feat. That it took an off-day at the office and a vintage performance by the Greatest of All Time to snap the streak (barely, at that) says plenty about Djokovic’s game. Inasmuch as there’s an unfortunate part of Djokovic’s streak, he only has “only” one major to show for it. The cynics will say: “A lot of players have won one Slam in a row.” But I think people who know tennis realize just how astronomically well you have to be playing to go a half year without losing, what a tremendous ride this was -- especially when the train runs Nadalville and Federerburg, against whom Djokovic racked up seven of the 43 wins.

If Federer beats Nadal on Sunday, Djokovic will be No. 1 on Monday. Would Friday’s loss compromise the luster of Djokovic’s achievement?

To some extent. I’m sure this isn’t how Djokovic envisioned becoming No. 1. But the ranking is cumulative and who can deny Djokovic what’s rightfully his?

What would it mean for Federer’s legacy to defeat Nadal in the French Open final at 29? Federer’s legacy is Fort Knox secure. The guy has more records than an AM radio station (sorry) and has achieved everything imaginable. There were, though, so many swirling questions about him. How much longer will go on if he’s not winning? (It had been almost 18 months since he even made the FINAL of a Slam.) How will he deal with being No. 3? Even, how has fatherhood blunted his motivation? Winning another big prize at this stage of his career -- and going through a red-hot Djokovic and a five-time champ Nadal to do so -- would be so sweet, such a testament to his continued drive and well as his native talent. Of course after today, many of those questions have already been answered.

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