Top-seeded Novak Djokovic returns a shot during his 6-7 (7), 4-6, 6-3, 6-2,… (Stan Honda / AFP / Getty Images )
Reporting from New York -- With 24,000 fans in full howl inside Arthur Ashe Stadium, Roger Federer twirled his racket and kicked at the court. He held in his favor two match points against Novak Djokovic and the expectation that once again he would be in a major tournament final, a champion aging elegantly and fiercely.
On this first match point, the 30-year-old Federer put in a 108-mph first serve, well-placed, and then something amazing happened.
Djokovic slammed a forehand return that was both violently aggressive and daintily placed. It was a winner, and after that came another, and within 10 minutes the U.S. Open semifinal match was gone from Federer.
Top-seeded Djokovic, for the second time in a row here, saved two match points against Federer and won a five-set semifinal. This time the score was 6-7 (7), 4-6, 6-3, 6-2, 7-5, and for the first time since 2002 Federer will finish a season without at least one major tournament victory.
In the final at 1 p.m. PDT Monday, Djokovic will play defending champion and second-seeded Rafael Nadal, who beat fourth-seeded Andy Murray, 6-4, 6-2, 3-6, 6-2, in the second day-session semifinal.
It was Nadal's fifth consecutive win over Murray and his third straight over Murray in a Grand Slam semifinal.
"I think I played my best match from this year here," Nadal said on court after he finished the win.
This will be the fourth straight year the men's final has been delayed a day because of weather, and this time Djokovic, a 24-year-old from Serbia who is 63-2 this year, will try to become only the fifth man in tennis' open era to win three of the four major titles in a single year.
His chance to do that seemed gone when Federer held a 5-3, 40-15 lead in the fifth set.
That's when Djokovic hit the decisive forehand return.
Federer thought the shot was something other than planned. "He just gets the lucky shot at the end," Federer said, "and off you go."
Djokovic almost agreed. "I had to take my chances," he said. "I managed to hit that amazing forehand return which got me back."
When the ball landed, Djokovic raised his racket to his ear and demanded applause. He got it.
Asked whether this was one of his greatest victories, Djokovic said, "It is. And it's probably, under the circumstances, the greatest victory I had in 2011. I definitely think so." Since Djokovic has already won the Australian Open and Wimbledon titles this year, that's a bold statement.
Federer dominated early, winning a taut first set and then winning the second set easily. Djokovic was out of sorts, constantly talking to his support staff and gesturing at the crowd, which was firmly on the side of Federer.
But whereas Federer accepted that Jo-Wilfried Tsonga had outplayed him at Wimbledon, where the Frenchman erased a two-set deficit to win their quarterfinal match, he was more reluctant to accept Saturday's loss.
"Today I clearly felt like I never should have lost," he said. "Look, it happens sometimes. That's why we all watch sports, isn't it? Because we don't know the outcome and everybody has a chance. That's what we love about the sport but it's also very cruel and tough."