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Open men's final is made to order

Federer and Djokovic struggle more than expected but sweep through semifinals.

September 09, 2007|Bill Dwyre | Times Staff Writer

NEW YORK -- The expected pair wound up in today's U.S. Open men's final, but the sailing to that ultimate tennis destination was not as smooth as the straight-set victories would indicate.

When the personable impersonator, Novak Djokovic, took out David Ferrer in the first semifinal Saturday, 6-4, 6-4, 6-3, there were several moments early in the second set when it appeared as if the heat and humidity of this boiling late summer day in Queens would be a tougher opponent than the Spaniard he was playing.

Similarly, the untouchable Roger Federer, eventually getting through in his semifinal, 7-5, 6-1, 7-5, had his serve broken three times in a row in the third set by Russian Nikolay Davydenko and looked quite touchable, even vulnerable.

Federer-Djokovic was the final that everybody seemed to want, from officials of the sport, to the fans, to the TV network. They are the best players left, and it is the best story.

Federer is tops in the world by ranking and reputation, and his appearance in a Grand Slam final -- this being his 10th in a row -- gives tennis another chance to point with pride. The superlatives emanating from TV and print media will be both excessive and warranted.

Djokovic adds nicely to the show not only with his talent -- he is No. 3 -- but by the recent public discovery of a heretofore hard-to-find tennis commodity: personality.

Other players and some media members knew this 20-year-old from Serbia was a breath of fresh air, but he gave the public a lung full Thursday after his quarterfinal victory, when he did a couple of hilarious imitations of other players.

"I need to say in the last two days," Djokovic said, "people were congratulating me more for my impressions than for my tennis."

He quickly added that he was here to play tennis and was very serious about it.

Maybe too serious when he stepped on the court against the No. 15 Ferrer, whose only weapon is hitting everything back. Ferrer never met a five-set match in heat and humidity he didn't like.

Djokovic admitted to being tense and nervous at the start -- this will be his first Grand Slam final -- and indicated that the combination of nerves and weather almost did him in. He got behind Ferrer 4-1 and then reeled off five consecutive games to take the first set.

Early in the second set the toll of the effort showed. He called for a trainer and sat during a break with an iced towel on the back of his neck. He struggled to hold his serve at 2-3, then somehow got a break for 4-3 and managed to serve the set out at 6-4.

All the while, he looked on the verge of walking to the chair and defaulting. The strokes that had been sharp and deep in the first set became closer to the service line and slower. He lived off a big serve and big risks, hitting 37 winners to 17 by Ferrer while also making 38 unforced errors.

"It was very hot," he said. "You know, if you would play on this condition today, you would understand what I am saying."

Federer's match was later in the afternoon, when it got cooler. His problem apparently was that a breeze kicked up.

Like Djokovic, Federer was playing a human backboard in Russia's Davydenko. Federer started slowly, as has been his tendency here, then swept through a 6-1 second set and appeared ready to coast. Then he and Davydenko played one of the stranger sets of the year.

It was like a roller coaster, with six breaks of service in a row in a men's semifinal of the U.S. Open. Unthinkable.

Finally, Federer apparently had had enough. He held for 5-5, broke for 6-5 and then finished this misery with a service game that looked as if he had suddenly returned from the dead: 112-mph ace, 117-mph service winner, 112-mph service winner, and a 124-mph bomb that Davydenko returned wide.

Davydenko said later that Federer always seems to be lucky. Federer said it was the wind.

Today will be another day, and if form holds, Federer will, as usual, have the final word.


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