As the night curfew loomed in Paris, the two arch rivals stood at a set apiece. Djokovic had broken first in the third set, but Nadal had broken back to make it 5-5 and had subsequently saved his own serve. Now while serving to remain in the set (at 5-6), the Serb seemed perturbed with Rafa’s remarkable recovery. Out of nowhere had Rafa conjured up a break point. This was the fabled precipice that Rafa’s rivals fear. A fall from here, and the third set and possibly the match would be gone in a trice. Rafa has never lost a five-setter at Roland Garros. Novak would have to come up with something special to save this set point. Maybe a huge serve, preferably an ace, or sustained pressure on Rafa’s backhand might do the trick.
Oh! but he does not land the first one properly, and is now on the second serve. An ace is ruled out. Rafa might now just crush the second one. Nole lands it all right, they begin the exchange, but Djokovic does not like to stretch such crucial points, and instinctively goes for winners. And Lo and behold! It is a cheeky backhand drop shot, played with the finest of touches, to find Rafa tantalizingly short. What gall! The Serb survives. Bring on the Tiebreak.
Novak Djokovic plays a strong tie-breaker to take it 7-4, and eventually the match 3-6, 6-3, 7-6, 6-2. It would be a travesty to say that Rafa choked. Rather it was Djokovic who soared. That’s how high the quality of tennis in Le Classique #58 (French Open 2021 SF) was.
Something similar had earlier happened at the Wimbledon in the 2018 Semi-final. The fifth set was beginning to assume gargantuan proportions. The score stood at 7-7 with Novak serving. He double faulted to hand over two break points to the Mallorcan, who now scented victory. The Serb’s response was audacious. He managed to land in a huge first serve and followed it up with a crisp double-handed backhand which Rafa was not able to keep inside. One saved, one more left. What was next on cards?
Cold nerves. An Ace followed.Deuce. Nole was safe for the moment. Then Rafa won a long rally through a down-the-line forehand winner, which was initially called out, but later reversed on review. Advantage Rafa again, his third break point. Djokovic got the first serve in, an exchange followed, Rafa rushed up to the middle of net. Stranded on the deuce court baseline, Novak sneaked one desperate ball through Nadal which just about fell into the corner of the service box on the deuce side. Another break point saved! Djokovic exhorted the fans to applaud. He was in his elements.
A brilliant backhand volley got Novak the advantage, but was frittered away by a feeble second serve and wayward forehand slice. Djokovic concluded the next exchange with a marvellous cross court backhand, but again lost the advantage to Rafa’s backhand winner. Two beautiful rallies on huge Novak second serves followed- the first ended with Rafa’s long backhand in response to Novak’s crushing backhand, but the next was sealed by Rafa’s crisp cross-court backhand. It was a Deuce again. But finally Novak’s first serves came to his respite and two quick points helped him get out of the jam.
Novak finally broke Rafa to win the fifth set 10-8 and enter the final, where he defeated Anderson to lift his fourth Wimbledon title. But Rafa had come within hair’s breadth to knock him off, and could have lifted his third Championships instead.
[Watch this 8+ minute game between 4:54-5:02-
Federer’s blowing away of two Match Points at 8-7, 40-15 on his serves have already achieved cult status. Djokovic was ready for his outbound second serve. Roger tried to convert his backhand response into a forehand winner, but managed to hit the ball out into the alley. What happened on the next match point was a replay of the previous year’s third break point (above, vs Nadal). Like Rafa, Roger rushed to the net but Novak managed to hit a passing shot from the deuce court baseline to the service box corner on the opposite deuce side. As it fell inside, a billion gasps must have been heard across the globe. Novak had survived to battle it out. Again. Incredible. What mockery! ‘He will win this now, he always does’ was the general sentiment. And he did. He broke Federer by forcing two quick backhand errors, then eventually won the final set in the tiebreaker by 13-12, and with that his fifth Wimbledon title.
That was the third time the Serb had come back from the dead against the Swiss Master. He had saved two match points each in successive US Open semi-finals in 2010 and 2011 and came out triumphant against Federer. In 2010, Nole was down 4-5, 15-40 on his own serve. He directed both his second serves to Federer’s comparatively weaker backhand, opened up the court a bit, played audacious ground strokes and managed to hang in the match. After saving those two points, Djokovic became unplayable, and wrapped the game, then the set and the match (5-7, 6-1, 5-7, 6-4, 7-5).
The next year while trailing by 3-5, 15-40 in the final set with Roger serving for the match, Novak Djokovic hit a tremendous cross-court return. No one in the audience moved. There was pin-drop silence for an instant. John McEnroe called this as ‘one of the all-time great shots in tennis’. On the next one, Roger thumped his forehand into the net. After that, the Swiss just suffered a meltdown and lost his serve and then the set 7-5. Roger found this defeat, and especially that cross-court forehand return much too bitter pills to swallow. He talked gibberish in the press conference, and trashed Novak’s bravado. But two meltdowns in two years revealed quite something about Federer, didn’t they?
(This press conference has not aged well. It would be a joy to read this here-
In his entire career, Djokovic has come back from the brink (facing match-points) 15 times. On seven occasions, he saved at least one match point during the tournament enroute to winning it, including at the 2011 US Open and 2019 Wimbledon. Saving crucial points against Rafael Nadal at critical junctures at the Wimbldeon 2018 and French Open 2021 might have tasted just as sweet, and were as productive, considering that Djokovic ended up winning both these Grand Slams.
[Those crucial points Djokovic V Federer at US Open 2010, 2011 and W 2019-
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