It’s about two hours since Novak Djokovic outgunned Rafael Nadal in what seemed like a Christopher Nolan film. I need to watch it again to understand what exactly happened. I think I will fail.
I am reeling from the intensity with which each player pounded shot after shot, even as they extended their limbs in gravity-defying swoops, often pulverising the bejeezus out of the ball when they were off balance. I am dazed after rallies that had no business to go on for so long as audacious passes met even more audacious responses.
This could have easily been a dream. In fact, in true Nolan fashion, the Nadal-Federer-Djokovic triangle is a dream within a dream. How can Federer be the greatest of all time if he is consistently beaten by a player who may not be the greatest of all time if he is consistently beaten by a player who may not be … And so on. You get the idea.
We all knew Djokovic was No.1, we knew he had put Nadal in his place this year, we knew he was 63-2 in 2011. He had steamrolled his way through to the semi-final – his only minor hurdles being two pulsating tiebreaks with Alexandr Dolgopolov and Janko Tipsarevic.
But for me, it was the way he countered the powers of Federer and Nadal that gave him his messianic aura. When Djokovic was up against Dolgopolov – and I was fortunate to watch that game at the Louis Armstrong Stadium – he seemed like rock-solid player who had mastered the percentages.
When Djokovic was up against Federer and Nadal, he flew into orbit. This was like watching Zidane or Ronaldinho run rings around the greatest defences – a greatness that enhanced itself when up against legends.
There are several reasons to remember Djokovic’s performances at the US Open but two particularly seminal moments stand out.
On Saturday, facing two match points in the fifth set, he went for what’s been termed as The Shot. Federer serves, Djokovic lashes, the ball disappears cross-court, Djokovic confronts the partisan crowd, Federer double-faults, loses the game, loses the set, loses the match and appears dazed at the press conference.
A lot has been written about this – including Brian Phillips’ fine piece here – but what stunned me was this: Djokovic was not a low-ranked player deciding to go for broke because he had nothing to lose. Here was the best player in the world with the ballsy instinct to whiplash an almost-impossible return, one so brutal that the great Federer hardly moved in response.
So while I understand the obsession to intensely analyse Federer’s elliptical post-match comments, I am deeply interested in the kind of mind that decides to go for such a shot at that time. I know Djokovic said it was a ‘lucky shot’ but I am still amazed at the chutzpah that allowed him to even consider it. It was a shot that changed the course of the match and as Phillips wrote: “If Djokovic wins against Nadal in the final, it won’t be an exaggeration to say that it changed tennis history.”
The second, equally shocking moment, was in the fourth set of the final. Djokovic had lost a mind-numbing third set – when Nadal rose like a Phoenix and threatened to pull off the impossible with one of the great comebacks. At the start of the fourth set, Djokovic was getting medical attention at every break, his back being massaged by his trainer. His body language was uninspiring and he soon took a medical timeout when he appeared in intense pain. These were omininous signs, especially against a man of such gargantuan stamina as Nadal.
A few minutes later, Djokovic was bossing the court, lambasting forehands at the acutest angles. Nadal the jackrabbit was nowhere to be seen. Instead there was a Nadal who was gutted and bushwhacked, running on empty. By the final game, his movement was restricted to a few tired steps here, a feeble serve there. The tank was exhausted. The great Rafael Nadal had been outlasted. And this was still the fourth set.
Before today, Novak Djokovic had won two Australian Open titles and a Wimbledon. He had beaten Federer and Nadal en route to these titles. He had pulled off a similar jailbreak against Federer in last year’s US Open semi-final. He had dominated Nadal on all surfaces this year and had come back from two sets down to beat the greatest player of all time (on a surface where he has prevailed five times).
Novak Djokovic has done all this. Yet this US Open win must rank as his finest achievement. In a matter of three days he left Federer dazed and Nadal exhausted. He messed with Federer’s mind and Nadal’s stamina. He dared to confront the greatest strengths of the greatest players. And he beat them at their own game.