Adam Zagoria covers basketball at all levels. He is the author of two books and an award-winning journalist whose articles have appeared in ESPN The Magazine, SLAM, Sheridan Hoops, Sports Illustrated, Basketball Times and in newspapers nationwide.
NEW YORK — When Novak Djokovic smacked a forehand long to handRoger Federer a break in the fifth set of their U.S. Open semifinal, the more than 23,000 fans in Arthur Ashe Stadium let loose a huge roar of applause.
Once the undisputed King of the U.S. Open, Federer had been cast as the underdog against the world’s No. 1 player and the crowd was clearly in his corner.
“That the crowd got into it was fantastic,” Federer said. “I think they were really hoping I was going to win today and I felt that. It definitely gave me a lift on top of that.”
Federer held double-match point at 5-3, 40-15 in his ensuing service game and it appeared to everyone in the stadium that the five-time former champion would return to the U.S. Open final after a one-year absence.
But for the second straight year, Federer blew double-match point against Djokovic, coughing up a two-sets-to-love lead for the second straight time in a major after never having done so before in his career. Djokovic prevailed 6-7 (7), 4-6, 6-3, 6-2, 7-5 in a match that lasted 3 hours, 51 minutes.
Federer was once 182-0 when up two sets to love in majors. He’s now lost two such leads in a row after losing in five sets to Jo-Wilfried Tsonga in the Wimbledon quarterfinals.
Djokovic’s incredible year continues. He’s now 63-2 in 2011 heading into Monday’s final against either Rafael Nadal or Andy Murray.
“That’s why we all watch sports, isn’t it?” Federer said. “Because we don’t know the outcome and everybody has a chance, and until the very moment it can still turn. That’s what we love about the sport, but it’s also very cruel and tough sometimes.
“It got me today. It hurts, but it’s fine. Could be worse. It could be a final.”
A year ago, Federer held double-match point on Djokovic’s serve in the semis, but the Serb came up with two huge forehands to fend off the imminent disaster and advance to the final, where he lost to Nadal.
A year later, Djokovic smacked a forehand crosscourt return winner on Federer’s first match point. a 108-mph serve.
“I read his serve, I anticipated it well and I hit it,” Djokovic said.
“I tend to do that on the match points,” he joked. “If you’re playing somebody like Roger, you have to take your chances when they’re presented.”
He then walked to the corner of Ashe Stadium, smiled and held up his hands to the pro-Federer crowd.
“At that stage you’re trying to get as much support as you can,” Djokovic said. “You’re trying to get energy.
“I was trying to get the crowd on my side, and, you know, I did. That’s what he does. It’s what everybody does. It’s normal.”
Federer was as stunned as everyone else that Djokovic had gone for such a big forehand at that critical juncture.
“Yeah, I had it,” he said. “There’s no more I could do. Snaps one shot, and then the whole thing changes. It’s strange how it goes, you know, but it was a good tournament for me.”
On the next point, after Djokovic fended off a Federer serve into the body, Federer smacked a forehand that clipped the net cord and took an unfavorable bounce back on to his side.
The two match points were suddenly gone for the second year in a row.
“Maybe I get a bit unlucky with the net cord, who knows?” Federer said. “Seriously, I don’t care anymore. It’s in the past.”
Then, Federer double-faulted to give Djokovic the break back at 5-4.
Two games later, Djokovic again broke Federer for a 6-5 lead and in a matter of minutes, the tide had completely turned.
The crowd sagged, knowing that the underdog was on the brink of losing.
Djokovic closed the match out when Federer sailed a return long, and Djokovic pumped his fists in triumph.
“Probably, under the circumstances, the greatest victory I had in 2011,” Djokovic said. “I definitely think so.
“He came back, he played well,” Federer said. “I didn’t play well at the very end. It’s disappointing, but I have only myself to blame, you know?”
For the first time since 2002, Federer, the owner of a men’s record 16 majors, finishes a calendar year without a Grand Slam singles title for his collection. After winning five straight Opens from 2004-8, he has now blown three straight leads here.
In 2009, he was up two sets to one on Juan Martin del Potro in the final.
“Sometimes in sports it just goes the other way, you know,” he said. “Maybe you’ve already won so much that it evens it out a bit sometimes. I don’t know.”
Despite the heart-wrenching loss, Federer said he plans to keep on marching forward with no imminent plans to retire. He still believes he has more majors in him.
“I guess I will be extremely hungry going to Australia next year,” he said. “It’s clear and obvious, and I know if I keep on working hard now that I’m feeling so good right now it will all pay off. I know it.
“I haven’t felt like this in a long time, so this is a good time.”
Adam Zagoria is a Basketball Insider who covers basketball at all levels. A contributor to The New York Times and SportsNet New York (SNY), he is also the author of two books and is an award-winning journalist and filmmaker. His articles have appeared in ESPN The Magazine, SLAM, Sheridan Hoops, Basketball Times and in newspapers nationwide. He also won an Emmy award for his work on the SNY mini-documentary on Syracuse guard Tyus Battle.
A veteran Ultimate Frisbee player, he has competed in numerous National and World Championships and, perhaps more importantly, his teams won the Westchester Summer League (WSL) championships in 2011 and 2013.
He lives in Manhattan with his wife and children.