Taking the court more than three hours later than originally planned, Roger Federer and Novak Djokovic delivered two of the best sets of tennis this tournament has seen. By the fourth set, though, the crowd’s beloved Federer had lost a step.
He could not keep pace with No. 1 Djokovic, who earned his 10th Grand Slam title with a 6-4, 5-7, 6-4, 6-4 win.
Djokovic has dominated the Grand Slams this year – this is his third major title, and he was runner-up at Roland Garros – but Federer has been playing like he did in his own dominant years. He’d won 93 percent of his service games this year, a career best, and the five-time U.S. Open champion hadn’t dropped a set en route to his first championship match here since 2009.
They’d played 41 times prior to this match, most recently at this year’s Wimbledon final, with Federer leading the head-to-head by the slightest margin: 21-20. This final was expected to be a battle.
Just as they prepared to walk out to the court, rain started falling. It forced tournament organizers to push the start back to 7:18p.m. Everyone had already arrived. Bradley Cooper, Anna Wintour, David Beckham, Robert Redford, and dozens of other celebrities waited out the delay with the rest of the antsy crowd. Finally, the skies cleared and the court was dried.
From the moment they finally started, it was clear that each had brought his best tennis.
After forcing deuce five times but failing to convert in Federer’s first service game, Djokovic earned three break-point opportunities in Federer's second. He finally converted when a Federer backhand went long. It was only the third time Federer had been broken in the tournament, and it had come on the 25th shot of the rally.
Serving to consolidate the break, Djokovic slipped and fell at the net. He looked fine as he stood up, but it looked like something might be wrong as he allowed Federer a quick break. That evened the set at 2-2. The momentum briefly shifted there, as Federer took four straight points to hold serve and take the advantage.
Djokovic responded by holding serve, sealing the game with an ace, then quickly breaking Federer. Federer was giving away points with uncharacteristic errors. They rallied throughout the set, Djokovic earning his first set point on a short winner at the net. Federer held to 4-5, but Djokovic answered with a quick 40-0 hold to take the set.
After a marathon first set, the second absolutely flew. Federer jumped out to 40-0 lead in most of his service games. Djokovic followed suit. They sprinted to 5-4, where Djokovic served to stay in the set. The game turned into an epic, 20-point battle. Federer had set point and failed to convert, before Djokovic closed it out with a 117mph serve. Djokovic smiled at the crowd, which was so clearly backing Federer. But the fans soon got their wish: Federer broke Djokovic in his final service game, evening the match at one set all.
Federer had two opportunities to break in Djokovic’s first service game in the third set, but failed. He’d had 15 chances to break serve to that point, but only converted on three. Serving for the set, Djokovic let Federer jump out to a 15-40 lead. Djokovic held off the first break point. They rallied on the next point, Djokovic finally winning it when a Federer shot went long. Djokovic fought all the way back to take the set, and the 2-1 lead.
And from there, the writing seemed to be on the wall. Djokovic proved why he is the one who already held two major titles this year; why he is the world No. 1. In the fourth, Djokovic earned an early break, and another at 4-2 to take complete control.
As the Serbian served for the trophy, the crowd continued rallying behind Federer. He gave them a final gift with a massive forehand slam to get to 15-30, then a forehand winner to force break point. And then, he showed just how badly he wanted it. He broke to stay in the match, pushing the set to 5-3. The crowd went absolutely crazy with every point he won.
"I felt like I was sort of up in the score, they kept me going," the 34-year old would later tell reporters. "It was unreal."
A quick hold, and he had to break one more time to stay alive. But there was no rattling Djokovic. He allowed Federer to earn a break point, but again did not let him convert. Federer converted just four of 23 opportunities in the match. Djokovic held serve to take the title.
“I have to share my admiration for Roger, everything he’s still doing for tennis. It was a tough one tonight. I have a tremendous respect for Roger, an incredible record,” Djokovic said after the win. “Coming on court knowing you are playing against probably the best player in the game adds a little bit more pressure. I knew he was going to be very aggressive. It was a quite incredible evening for me.”
"I am very disappointed," Federer said later. "I had my chances on my racket. I should never been down in the score the way I was. But Novak did a great job of fending them off, and, you know, all of that. It was a tough night, but still, I don't know, thrilling at the same time."
This is the second time Djokovic has won three major titles in a calendar year.
"It's very impressive. He's having [an] unbelievable career," added Federer. As for whether Djokovic, who is 28, will surpass Federer's 17 Grand Slam titles, he added, "Clearly he can win many of them. He already has a ton, so obviously he's got to stay healthy and all that stuff and hungry, but obviously you would think he will win more after tonight."
"Now actually sitting down here with this trophy and reflecting on what I have achieved, it's quite incredible. So I'm definitely very satisfied and proud of that," said Djokovic in his press conference. "We pushed each other to the limit, as we always do. It's an ultimate challenge that I can have now winning against Roger back to back finals in Wimbledon and here, US Open. It's tremendous. I'm really, really proud of it."