There are moments in a sport’s history when everything turns and you can see it right in front of you. It’s a long process, really, but things build up into a moment that’s as finite as a baton being passed in a track relay. Sure, a lot of work led up to that pass, but the moment defined it or solidified it or something.
That’s what Novak Djokovic was doing at the French Open, looking to take the baton from both Roger Federer and Rafael Nadal, to become the best. Instead, the page of history refused to turn. Federer beat Djokovic 7-6 (7-5), 6-3, 3-6, 7-6 (7-5) Friday in the semifinals in one of those classic matches that leaves fans jittery throughout. Both players held their nerve, for the most part, and by the end, they were playing in the dark like kids who won’t go home until the score is settled.
“I haven’t disappeared. . .’’ Federer said. “I wasn’t lying on the beach.’’
The loss ended Djokovic’s 43-match win streak, 41 to start this year. Both marks fell just short of records. Djokovic described it as the best five months of his life: “It had to end sometime. Unfortunately, it came in a bad moment. This is sport. I will keep working hard.’’
He will be fine. This match meant much more to Federer. It was a special moment for him, on this side of his career arc. Some analysts are already asking if this is Federer’s biggest win outside of major finals. I’ll say this: It’s bigger than some of his championships, because it served to discover and to prove something.
Djokovic has already firmly established that he belongs on the mountaintop with Nadal. On Friday, Federer proved there is room for three. It will get crowded this summer when Juan Martin del Potro fully gets back into shape after a year off following wrist surgery.
But imagine what Federer must be feeling now. He is still here, still standing. He still belongs. For once, people aren’t asking him what’s wrong with him.
“It almost feels like I’ve won the tournament,’’ he said. “But the silverware is still out there to be won.’’
People are already calling this the unpredictable moment. I can’t go that far, and will immodestly point out the headline below this one, from the morning of the match: “Roger Federer will beat Novak Djokovic. Here are 4 reasons why.’’ Before I get too big-headed, I should note that I once was so wrong on a prediction about Jack Nicklaus that afterward, I literally tore the column out of the Chicago Sun-Times, the paper I wrote for, and wrote another piece about what it tastes like to eat your words. Burp.
Anyway, this moment didn’t just prove to tennis fans that Federer has a continued relevance. It also proved the same things to himself. It was an emotional moment, though he’s not going to admit that now, with another match to go.
The casual sports fan probably still considers Federer to be the best anyway. He isn’t. He’s third best now, but close tennis observers wondered whether he was sliding even more.
Djokovic pointed to Federer’s mental toughness, saying it is what makes him a champion. But Federer has been playing tight on big points off his backhand. He rarely did that Friday, as he already had proven what he needed to at Roland Garros: that he can still beat everyone not named Djokovic or Nadal. Instead, the pressure was on Djokovic, who had come into the match with a chance to move to No. 1 in the rankings and to reach his first French Open final.
The big difference-makers for Federer were his serve and his strategy. Physically pushed around by Djokovic in their past few meetings, Federer had tried to push back as hard as he could with muscle. It didn’t work. On Friday, he mixed up spins and paces and threw off Djokovic’ rhythm.
But more importantly, Federer’s serve was dominating in a way it hasn’t been for years, pulling him out of jams consistently. Because Djokovic has the best serve-return in the game, it seemed pointless to keep pushing in second serves, so Federer got aggressive on them. He served 18 aces at a point in his career when things are starting to go, like foot speed. More aggressive serving might be his path to prolonged greatness.
The fourth set was probably the best set of tennis played by any two players at the same time this year. Djokovic had a chance to serve out the set, but Federer broke back by crushing a forehand winner. That was the big moment. Next thing you knew, it was a tiebreaker at dusk.
Roger Federer comes through again. We’re going to get the same page in history that tennis has been celebrating for a while, Federer-Nadal. But don’t take this one for granted, because it might well be the last time it happens in a major final. Federer will turn 30 in two months.
“It doesn’t feel like a big occasion unless he is in the final,’’ Federer said. “I guess I got the match I was looking for. I’ve got to play some extraordinary, special tennis. I’m aware of that.’’
He’s also aware now that he still can.