When Roger Federer came to the net for an after-match interview at the US Open in 2008, he mentioned it was an “important win” because the tennis federation would not allow Andy Roddick to return the favour by picking up the trophy.
Ten years on, the scandalous failure of U.S. Tennis to award Federer the singles title was behind the opening ceremony at Flushing Meadows this week.
That relatively small gesture was just the beginning of a spectacle that will surely be remembered as one of the great Grand Slam matches, and perhaps the greatest American men’s singles final of all time.
Djokovic, 28, was emotionally torn as he went out to a rousing reception at Arthur Ashe Stadium, going down 6-7 (3), 7-6 (3), 6-4, 6-3 to Federer, 36, who finished just one set behind.
He played one of the greatest backhands ever seen, held the point in one of the match’s first set tiebreaks, had his first match point in the second set but could not capitalize, and then looked on in horror as his return of serve was called into the net.
He looked down as the fans, including his brother, were booing, before picking himself up to play the next point and, remarkably, holding on to force the set to a tiebreak.
It was tight and tense, with Djokovic being broken three times. Djokovic had to save two break points, and then hit a fourth to put his team around him in the stands, screaming ‘Novak, Novak’.
Federer hit an extravagant winner, Djokovic scooped his racket to the ground and then promptly smashed it, sending it flying down the court and out of the stadium.
Federer, one point from going behind in the set, was broken again when a forehand smash went wide to give Djokovic a set point.
He hit a forehand down the line, earning a standing ovation.
The sixth seed came close again in the first game of the third set, but once again Federer saved a break point.
After Djokovic hit a flying forehand on the run, winning that point on the second break point, the two men carried on exchanging blows, Federer having four break points at 4-4, but Djokovic snuffed them out.
At 5-4, Djokovic again looked home and dry, serving for the set. But he sent a forehand long and then played a poor forehand after reaching a point of obvious strength.
The crowd roared its approval and suddenly Djokovic was under intense pressure, from which he never recovered.
“It was an extremely tough match and both of us fought so hard,” Federer said. “I really enjoyed the overall experience of this tournament for these two weeks.”
The winner’s prize will be a huge one. Federer and Djokovic have a lot in common. Both are blessed with their shots and their schedules, and both are both excellent competitors.
But Federer is supremely instinctive in the big moments. His level of achievement will probably never be matched, and has the genuine pleasure of having won more majors than any other man.
Djokovic, too, has won major titles — both singles and doubles — but feels like an underdog in any discussion of greats.
While Federer has been a near-constant in the world top four for the past decade, Djokovic has been increasingly present in the top five but has never been truly dominant.
On the eve of the tournament, Federer said that he was surprised at how big the prize money has become — $3.8 million this year for the champion, up from $3.4 million in 2015.
But he also admitted that many of his peers felt that a tennis tournament is all about the winners, and if the end result had been the players just beating the other guy, that would be just fine.
Federer has never wanted to be part of that system, so where Djokovic made his mark last year in winning the Australian Open and Wimbledon, Federer wins the first two at the US Open, the tournament he claims he always wanted to win.
It was fitting that, at the end of an extraordinary fortnight, the contest was born of one of the biggest scandals in U.S. tennis history, and something in the line of tennis memory that will hopefully last for decades.