Sunday, September 11, 2011
Making Sense of a Match Point Miracle
Tennis's version of a "The Shot Heard 'Round the World" came late in the 5th set of the US Open semifinal yesterday, with Roger Federer serving for the match at 5-3, 40-15. Novak Djokovic, about to be bounced from the draw, would later say he gambled, and he would say it with a smile.
But Djokovic's face told a different story in the moments leading up to the madness. A glimpse at the tape reveals a Djokovic who is resigned to his fate. He isn't wearing that lucid glare that we expect future miracle makers to wear. He's not calm, steely or focused; he's just plain miffed, and for good reason. Djokovic had just handed a service break to Federer in the previous game; now here he was, facing tennis's version of walking the plank, about to be aced out of the championship while 23,000 screaming fans cheered for his rival.
Then, POW!, Djokovic unleashed the mighty cross court blast that is destined to be referenced in US Open lore from this point on. The shot was a blur. A meteor. It was not a tennis ball hitting the ocean-blue hardcourt just inside the sideline, it was a ball of gas.
30-40. Still, Djokovic remains on the plank; he's got another match point to wiggle out of. Federer is ready to serve, but what's this? Djokovic is pleading to the crowd for support -- and getting it! He is smiling as Federer prepares to blast another serve in his direction...
When it was all said and done, Djokovic would produce another miraculous return, which would send Federer into a tailspin and breathe enough life into Djokovic to get him off the plank and into the finals by winning the last four games of a 6-7, 4-6, 6-3, 6-2, 7-5 instant classic.
Afterwards, we were left to ponder: How could one shot start such an avalanche of momentum? Did Federer choke, or was Djokovic simply too good? Is Djokovic the luckiest man on the planet or was his strategy of throwing caution to the wind the right one for the moment?
Federer didn't think so highly of Djokovic's gunslinging. "Confidence? Are you kidding me?" he said, when asked if Djokovic's match point meteor was a function of his confidence. "I mean please. Look, some players grow up and play like that...I never played that way...so for me, this is hard to understand how you can play a shot like that on match point."
But Djokovic was still smiling, and still feeling lucky. "Yeah, I tend to do that on match points," he said. "It kinda works."
Not only did it work, it also sucked the confidence from Federer. Seven unforced errors would immediately follow Djokovic's heroics and related crowd-rallying, in the haze that was the final four games of the match.
But Djokovic's defining moment might not have been the impossibly good forehand he hit. His insistence on calling for crowd support before Federer served the second match point might have have been the real shape-shifter. The press questioned Djokovic on whether or not he had crossed a line with the gesture, but Djokovic wasn't taking the bait. "I was trying to get the crowd on my side, and you know, I did," said Djokovic. "At this level you need that in order to win."
"As long as it's sportsmanship, I don't care," said Federer. "I don't know what he did, so it's not an issue."
While Djokovic's first match point may have been pure serendipity, his next shot was a skillful defensive return against a nasty Federer body serve. And it was done with a crowd firmly sensing -- and wanting -- something special from the Serb. Still, Federer had a chance to hit a fairly routine winner and quiet the masses, and failed.
His forehand clipped the tape, landed wide, and the dominoes fell after that, one by one.
"It's awkward to explain this loss because I feel like I should be doing the other press conference," said Federer.
"Well, I would lie if I say, you know, I didn't think I'm gonna lose," said Djokovic.
That is where the psychology becomes so interesting to dissect: if Djokovic hadn't been resigned to losing, could he have hit the shot that enabled him to win? If he hadn't taken the time to win over the fans before the second match point, would Federer have been more decisive on the forehand he missed?
This was the perfect moment where courage and hopelessness overlapped to change the entire complexion of a match. Then nerves and momentum got involved to finish the deal.
And, as is always the case in tennis, timing was everything.