The final of the 2015 US Open men’s singles will be contested between the best player of all time and the best player of this time when Roger Federer and Novak Djokovic play the 42nd edition of their rivalry here on Sunday.
They won their semi-finals on Friday evening in contrasting styles and circumstances, Federer having to press hard early before subduing Stan Wawrinka, 6-4, 6-3, 6-1 in an hour and 32 minutes, while Djokovic took just seven minutes fewer to dismiss the injured defending champion Marin Cilic 6-0, 6-1, 6-2.
Last year, the fans were denied a Federer-Djokovic final by Cilic and Kei Nishikori. This year, in the absence of Serena Williams, who suffered a shock loss to Roberta Vinci earlier on Friday, they have something special to embrace at the end of the tournament.
Federer has not played in a final here since 2009, and the hunger for an 18th major seems as strong, perhaps more so, given he knows, at 34, he will have to deal with the dread of retirement sooner or later.
“The last year six years, I came close a few times. It’s great to be in the final. My game is definitely very good, maybe my best. I’m serving very well, going for my shots. I would love for it to work one more time this year. Nights like these are wonderful; I’m not going to throw that away just like that.”
In the sixth of their finals this year, Federer beat Djokovic in Cincinnati, so his confidence levels will be near their maximum.
“He’s had a tremendous year,” he said of Djokovic. “There’s a lot on the line when we play. He is the best mover on the hard courts for some time now, and so consistent. He doesn’t give you anything. I like that challenge. I’ll be ready for it.”
On paper at least, Djokovic has had the easier run over the fortnight, and he has taken full advantage of it. Before accounting for Cilic, he’d spent a mere 54 games getting rid of Joao Souza, Andreas Haider-Maurer, Andreas Seppi (who stopped Federer in the Australian Open), Roberto Bautista Agut and Feliciano Lopez – not a top 10 player among them.
Federer, who had not dropped a set and conceded only 43 games, beat Leonardo Mayer, Steve Darcis, Philipp Kohlschreiber, John Isner and Richard Gasquet, all outside the top 10 but cumulatively providing tougher opposition. He has been superb in dealing with them.
The second semi-final on Friday was the 20th meeting between the two Swiss friends, and Wawrinka spared a moment before the battle to repeat his mantra that, “Roger is the best player ever.” It is as if the declaration of admiration gives him not only armour against the pain of defeat, but inspiration to overcome the odds.
It is what he did to Djokovic in the final of the French Open, charging at the world No 1 from a position of humility and respect, and breaking him down with the sheer power of his determination, not to mention the fiercest one-handed backhand in the game.
But cracks appeared in his game here as early as the fifth game, as Federer grabbed three break points. Serving at under 50% – a disastrously low level of penetration against Federer, or any of the leading players - Wawrinka found some power and direction, with nine first serves in a row, two of them aces, to get into a deuce fight, before he held for 3-2. It was his last significant act of defiance.
Two games later, Wawrinka found himself 0-40 down again. This time he threw it away with a backhand long, and Federer, whose excellence neither dipped or soared, was primed to drive the dagger deeper, holding and breaking to love for a two-set lead.
Wawrinka has come back from such perilous positions before, but not against Federer. In their 20th match, he lost for the 17th time. Federer’s greater challenge remains elsewhere, against the Serb who has beaten him 20 times and is in perfect shape to add one more to the list.
Federer was relentless in the one-sided third set, finishing the job with his 11th ace. What a final it should be.
This article was written by Kevin Mitchell at Flushing Meadows, for theguardian.com on Saturday 12th September 2015 02.42 Europe/Londonguardian.co.uk © Guardian News and Media Limited 2010