Novak Djokovic: the greatest in 2015, with the gates of history opening wide

One set all.

4-4 in the third set.

The U.S. Open final.

The two best ATP stars in the world, playing their hearts out before 23,000-plus spectators (many of them poorly behaved, but that’s another story).

This is the moment every professional tennis player dreams of. It’s the moment every tennis pro tries to reach. Once there, it’s the moment a player hopes to be able to master. It’s a moment in which a player trusts that all the work, all the practice, all the effort, will lead to picture-perfect split-second reactions that can change a match on a dime; win a third set; and tuck away a major championship near the end of a long and punishing tennis season.

At 4-4 and 40-30, with Roger Federer serving, Novak Djokovic found that moment. He used it to catapult himself to a long-awaited second championship at the Billie Jean King USTA National Tennis Center. Djokovic finally conquered the U.S. Open again, and for all the mistakes Federer made on Sunday night, this was clearly a match Djokovic won more than a competition the Swiss lost.

4-4, 40-30, third set — it’s a moment frozen in time for the Serbian legend and his legions of fans.

*

Certain points (other than championship points) stand out in the public memory. Sometimes, they stand out because of an error. Other times, they stand out because of how important they were. Most of all, however, certain non-championship points become fixed in the mind’s eye because they were so damn good. More particularly, some points become unforgettable in the larger history of tennis because one really great player did everything right on a point, everything he realistically could to achieve what he needed to achieve… and was still somehow beaten by something better from the other side of the net.

This is what happened at 4-4, 40-30, third set, in the men’s final of the 2015 U.S. Open.

Roger Federer pounded an accurate flat and wide serve to the corner of the ad-court service box. Against John Isner or Milos Raonic, the return never would have gotten over the net. Against Andy Murray or David Ferrer, the ball would have come back and the next part of the point would have unfolded just as it did against Djokovic.

Federer made a crisp and properly angled volley to the opposite corner of the court. It was punched away enough that Djokovic was not able to move foward, toward the baseline, as he scrambled to his deuce corner to retrieve the volley.

Murray probably would have shoveled up a defensive lob to try to win the point. Ferrer might have done the same, or he might have tried a down-the-line forehand pass, one which probably would have been sprayed wide under duress.

Djokovic did something different, and it won him his 10th major championship, his third of 2015.

Djokovic hit a stab topspin forehand — not really a lob, and not really a drive return with an intent to be flat in trajectory. The shot was a drifting shot, but one with enough sustained height that Federer could not easily come in and knock it off near the service lines. Federer had to retreat on the ball, and he properly discerned (in a split-second, of course) that the ball was headed for his deuce corner. It was too close to call in terms of whether the shot was going to land in or beyond the baseline, or — for that matter — if it was going to land in or wide of the sideline. (The shot was more likely to be a close call in terms of going long rather than wide, but frankly, the shot seemed headed for the intersection of the baseline and sideline, the “coffin corner” of tennis.)

When in doubt, of course, hit the ball. Federer knows this, and so he properly — and with great agility — did what he realistically could: He caught the ball with his racquet, above eye level, and sent it back well beyond the service box in Djokovic’s ad corner. The shot wasn’t right next to the baseline — it wasn’t that deep — but it wasn’t a cream-puff short ball. Djokovic had reset the point, but he wasn’t inside the court. He still had to do something.

Promptly, Djokovic blasted a backhand down the middle of the court. It was simultaneously an aggressive shot and a percentage play, given that the net is lower in the middle than it is on the edges. The bullet went deep into the court, and Federer — just inside the baseline as he moved to his left toward the center service notch — was jammed. He barely got his racquet on the ball, which harmlessly bounced to the side.

POINT!

Deuce!

40-40.

Federer did nothing wrong, and more than that, he did several things really well, things just about every other tennis player wouldn’t have been able to do to keep the point going as long as it did.

All he had to show for it was a lost game point for 5-4 in the third.

Djokovic could have relented, of course, after playing such a point. He could have experienced a letdown.

No, sir. Djokovic dug in on the next two points, forcing Federer — ever mindful of the shrunken court Djokovic policed with his outrageous defensive prowess — to try to hit the perfect winner on the lines, with virtually no margin. Federer missed, and in an instant, Djokovic had the break of serve he used to win the third set. He took a two-sets-to-one lead. He took a 5-2 lead in the fourth.

Then, at 5-4, 30-40 — with the same defensive acumen he displayed at 4-4, 40-30 — Djokovic absorbed several probing and well-struck Federer groundstrokes until the Swiss finally capitulated with a tired error. Sure, the point didn’t end with a winner, but it was still a point defined more by the excellence of the winner than the failure of the loser. Federer’s game was a mess in the first set, and it’s also quite true — as Federer fans will note — that the Swiss blew a break point at 4-3* in the third set with a routine error, the one shot he’d really like to have back. It’s true that this match was very ragged at times. Yet, through those rough periods — as players dealt with weather conditions they hadn’t previously encountered this fortnight in New York — quality tennis pierced through the damp and humid environment.

The second set was marvelous. The third was decent, though the 3-4 Djokovic service game was an eyesore at best, a toxic waste site at worst. The fourth set featured Djokovic in regal form, with Federer mounting a rally based on precise attacks and nearly pulling it off, much as he’d done in the fourth set of the 2014 Wimbledon final. The match wasn’t as good as the 2015 Wimbledon final, but it was more dramatic, and it certainly gave a U.S. Open crowd the kind of main-event conclusion it lacked a year ago with Kei Nishikori and Marin Cilic.

Through it all — and in the face of the kind of drunken fan behavior that should get fans ushered from stadiums — Djokovic persevered.

He defeated his U.S. Open demons. (More on that in this U.S. Open review, in item No. 1.)

He defeated Federer again in a major final, the third time he has done so in three tries over the past 14 months.

He defeated, again, the doubts which a lot of players could have experienced after losing in the finals of both Montreal and Cincinnati.

He finished the year 27-1 at the majors for the first time in his career. He joined the very select and limited company of male tennis players to have won double-figure amounts of major titles.

Bjorn Borg and Rod Laver are next. Then Roy Emerson. Pete Sampras and Rafael Nadal.

Yet, that might not be where Novak Djokovic’s road ends.

*

It is improbable. It is anything but guaranteed. It’s not what one would yet call likely — not now.

However, have tennis pundits and fans really devoted any energy to the idea that Novak Djokovic could become the all-time leader in major singles titles? Other than Djokovic fans (and even among them, I don’t think this has been seriously considered until after the Wimbledon title in July), how many people on this planet have thought, “You know, he really could top Federer’s 17 when it’s all said and done”?

This isn’t a prediction, folks — it’s merely an attempt to start the process of thinking through a possibility (not a likelihood, just a possibility).

Like Nadal, Djokovic is still in his late 20s. Unlike Nadal, though, Djokovic has less tread on the tires (roughly 100 fewer matches played). Moreover, due to the fact that he was — at least in comparison to Nadal — a late bloomer, Djokovic seems likely to be able to play at least three more really good years of tennis. With Nadal, it’s an open question, but Djokovic playing three relatively high-level years does not strike me as an irrational thought.

Within that three-year period, then, who will stop Nole from winning a lot more majors? Stan Wawrinka comes to mind, but Wawrinka has to be in the same half of the draw (semifinals) to have a good chance of playing Djokovic, except at the French Open, where the slower surface suits Wawrinka’s power game in a manner akin to what it did for another Magnus Norman-coached big hitter, Robin Soderling.

Andy Murray is still waiting to add a third major to his trophy case. He could certainly do the deed… but he hasn’t proven that he can over the past two years. Federer will be in the mix during the next few years, but as we’ve seen in over the past two months, Federer plays so much good tennis through six rounds at a major that when he goes up against Djokovic in a final, the need to maintain that impossibly high standard against relentless defense over the course of five full sets is just not a high-percentage proposition for the 34-year-old wonder of the world.

When you then get past Fed and Muzz and Stan, who else is there? As tennis commentator Andrew Burton has argued — and as I very much agree — the generations following the Nadal/Murray/Djokovic generation (we’re talking chiefly about Kei Nishikori and Milos Raonic in one cohort, and more peripherally, the Nick Kyrgios-Borna Coric younguns in another cohort) do not seem ready to battle Djokovic on even terms.

If Murray can’t break his losing streak against Djokovic in best-of-five-set matches, and if Wawrinka can’t work his way deep enough in draws to earn rematches with Nole at the majors, the pickings are slim. Djokovic could compile another three-major year in 2016, followed by two in 2017 and 2018. That would get him to…

*does math, carry the one, add the number, etc….*

17.

He would be 31 years old.

Given that Federer is still a major contender at 34, and given that Djokovic is in terrific shape, well… you figure it out.

Yes, we have a long way to go.

Yes, a year from now will give us a LOT more perspective on these issues.

Yes, things can and do change quickly in tennis. We didn’t expect Federer — with 16 majors in January of 2010 — to not win another major until Wimbledon of 2012. We didn’t expect Rafa to have the kind of 2015 he had.

No one’s predicting anything. Yet, let us at least begin to roll around in our minds that after Federer’s and Rafa’s prime periods, and all the monumental achievements they forged, someone else really could join them — not as a third wheel, always the C to Fed’s A and Rafa’s B, but a true historical equal…

… and maybe, even (blasphemy alert), the very best who ever lived.

“It will be the interesting drama in the history of the life, no? It is the true,” as Nadal might say.

About Matt Zemek

Matt Zemek is the managing editor of The Student Section, covering college football and basketball with associate editors Terry Johnson and Bart Doan. Mr. Zemek is the editor of Crossover Chronicles, covering the NBA. He is also Bloguin's lead tennis writer, covering the major tournaments. He contributes to other Bloguin sites, such as The AP Party.

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