Novak Djokovic and Living in the Moment

It was fitting that actor Gerard Butler was in the building for Novak Djokovic’s 6-4, 5-7, 6-4, 6-4 victory in Sunday’s U.S. Open final, considering Djokovic was forced into the real life version of “1 vs 300,” battling not only Roger Federer, but the fiery New York crowd as well.

In the opening minutes, Djokovic proved that the tennis adage “boxing without the blood” isn’t always true after a nasty slip:

Other than a pair of games where he was distracted by the aftermath of the fall, Djokovic was by far the better player in the opening set. Federer, usually calm, cool and collected, was predictably nervy, seeing as he often is thrown off his game a bit due to the precise play required to attack Djokovic, but was especially loose with his forehand early.

Per the usual in Grand Slam finals, the quality picked up in the second set. Amid a stretch of easy holds for both, it was Federer, who was the better player, generating five break points in his opening return game, and a couple set points later, up 5-4.

With a perfect chance to knot the match at one set apiece, Federer blew his chance by missing an easy forehand long, and Djokovic held his nerve (the pro-Fed crowd grew louder than ever after Djokovic made one exclamatory act of defiance in that game, cheering in triumph even when the Serb merely missed first serves) to level at 5-all. On a night where his composure was sometimes lacking, Federer managed to hold for 6-5 and made up for the previous missed openings by breaking to claim the set 7-5.

The quality dropped in the third with Djokovic seemingly mentally fatigued and Federer physically weary. The two traded breaks, with Federer hitting bigger to presumably save his legs, but it was Djokovic who essentially ended the match by taking the third. With some last-ditch SABRing, Federer made a late comeback in the fourth, nearly erasing a double-break deficit, but it was too little, too late.

After saving a couple more break points (Federer created 23 of them, yet only converted a meager four), Djokovic again proved to be too staunch a challenge over five sets. Though it wasn’t his greatest performance, his defense, serve and consistent mechanics require opponents to submit a very strong effort to overcome him even below his best.

This makes 10 majors now for Djokovic, with the prime of his career delivering three in 2011, three this year and three in between. It’s a testament to the great player he’s worked to become, but it’s also a shame that talk immediately turned to if he can catch Rafa Nadal and Pete Sampras at 14 or even Federer at 17. For as dominant as Djokovic has been, he’s also at a similar age to where Federer and Nadal slowed down.

An even more pertinent detail is that no one saw the end of their peaks coming. Federer won his 16th Slam at the 2010 Australian Open, marking his third title in four majors (and 18 of the previous 19 Grand Slam finals). Not yet halfway to age 29 at that point, he’s won just one since (2012 Wimbledon). Nadal returned from injury in early 2013, ripping off a dominant five Slam run that included three titles and a final (in which he was injured). He hasn’t been in a semifinal since turning 28 more than a year ago — slowed by inconsistent shot depth, lack of confidence, and more injuries.

This isn’t to say Djokovic is done (neither Federer nor Nadal can be counted out either), just that sports take unpredictable turns. There’s no obvious challenger to him at the moment, but that assumes Djokovic will maintain his current level, no guarantee considering he’s yet to post consecutive multi-Slam seasons.

The man has 10 (!) Slam titles, a host of other notable achievements and is looking set to finish as a top-five player of all-time. Rather than assume what he’ll achieve next, it’s probably best to appreciate it as it happens.

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