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Steve Flink: The Champions

9/10/2007 3:21:00 AM

by Steve Flink

In the end, after a fortnight without a drop of rain, after all of the leading players had given everything they have to claim the last major title of the season, after the fans were rewarded with more than their share of good matches, the two best players in the world stepped forward once more to establish themselves as the 2007 U.S. Open singles champions. For the fourth year in a row, the redoubtable Roger Federer was victorious on the hard courts in New York, securing his 12th Grand Slam championship in the process. For the second time- four years after she recorded her first triumph-Justine Henin stepped forward to win the women's championship. Both players underlined their authority as the best players in the world as Federer won his third major of the year while Henin took her second.

I believed Novak Djokovic was going to beat Federer in the final. He had come off an uplifting victory over the world No. 1 in the final of Montreal, prevailing in a final set tie-break on that occasion. Moreover, the rapidly improving Djokovic had demonstrated that he is beyond a doubt the second best hard court player in the world. Not only did he win that Masters Series event in Montreal, but he also won Miami earlier in the season and reached the final of Indian Wells. He also was a semifinalist at both the French Open and Wimbledon.

So he had clearly established himself as the No. 3 player in the world, and as a growing threat to the two men ranked above him- Federer and Rafael Nadal. Djokovic got off to a terrific start in his first Grand Slam tournament final, seemingly free of nerves, drawing first blood against his revered opponent. Djokovic broke his esteemed adversary for a 6-5 lead, and served for the first set in the twelfth game. He needed that set more than Federer, and was poised to win it.

Djokovic served an ace to reach triple set point. Suddenly, it all hit him. It hit him hard. He was on the verge of going up a set against Roger Federer in the final of the U.S. Open. He was closing in on the realization of a dream. He was right where he wanted to be. Djokovic hit a safe stroke down the middle, which Federer devoured, ripping a forehand winner into the clear. One set point gone. Federer sliced a backhand return, which Djokovic drove timidly over the baseline. Djokovic made another backhand unforced error. Three set points gone.

Two more times in that critical game, Djokovic reached set point. But he missed a relatively easy forehand, and Federer cracked a scorching forehand return to provoke a mistake from an increasingly vulnerable Djokovic. Five set points gone. Then Djokovic double faulted that game away. They went into a tie-break, and Djokovic got the mini-break for a 3-2 lead, only to throw it away with another anxious mistake. He smashed his racket down on the court. Federer lost only one more point in the tie-break. But in a remarkable display of determination and restored composure, Djokovic opened up a 4-1 second set lead, and pushed hard for an insurance break.
He did not get it. Then, at 4-2, Djokovic let Federer back into that set, losing his serve at love. Federer bounced back to 4-4, but then, in the twelfth game, serving at 5-6, 15-40, the Swiss was down double set point. Djokovic was nearly back to one set all. But then Federer fired an ace to save the first set point. On the next one, Djokovic made a fine return off a tough first serve. Later in that point, he laced a forehand which was called long. He challenged the call, but the Hawk-Eye replay showed the ball was an eyelash long.

Federer had escaped again, saving the two set points, reaching another tie-break. In that sequence, Federer was unstoppable, not missing a first serve in four attempts. Djokovic could not get one of them back into play. Federer had somehow taken two sets to love lead. Still, a dogged Djokovic stayed in the fight. At 2-2 in the third, he had Federer down 0-40. Federer failed to put a first serve in play the next three points, but Djokovic did not take advantage. Federer held on with an ace. Djokovic gamely hung in until 4-5, and even had a game point for 5-5. But the Serbian was spent, making bad decisions, gambling recklessly. On his second match point, Federer came through as Djokovic netted a foolish backhand drop shot. Match to Federer 7-6 (4),7-6 (2), 6-4.

Despite five set points against him in the first set and two more in the second, Federer managed to win in straight sets for his 12th victory in 14 major finals. He has never lost one away from Roland Garros, going five for five at Wimbledon, four for four at the Open, and three for three in Melbourne. That is no mean feat. That is a tribute to the man's capacity for playing with ineffable grace under pressure. I tip my hat to Federer for his big match prowess. He thoroughly deserves the distinction of becoming the first man ever to win four consecutive U.S. Open titles.

But the fact remains that he did not play a particularly good final. He won largely on experience. And he showed us again how unwilling he is to give away big points; he makes you beat him every time. It is uncanny how unshakable he is in the crunch. But, in turn, Djokovic was not able to handle the difficult assignment of a first Grand Slam championship match. And what happened to him was cruelly ironic. When Djokovic beat Federer in Canada, Federer had led 6-5, 40-0 in the first set and had six set points before dropping his delivery. He went on to lose that set, and eventually the match. They reversed roles this time around.

Djokovic has played ever since the spring like someone much older and more seasoned than 20, but he understandably did not look that way against Federer on this occasion. In the end, I am convinced it was the thought of capturing a first major rather than being intimidated by Federer that cost him the final in New York.

Henin was the class of the female field, and by a wide margin. She did not lose a set in the tournament, the first woman to realize that feat since Serena Williams in 2002. In the championship match, she won easily dismissed Svetlana Kuznetsova 6-1, 6-3 for her 15th win in 17 career meetings with the Russian. Kuznetsova succeeded Henin as U.S. Open champion in 2004, and she was runner-up to the Belgian at the 2006 French Open. Kuznetsova has now moved up to No. 2 in the world.

And yet, she did not look as if she was in the same league as Henin as they battled under the lights in Arthur Ashe Stadium. Kuznetsova was not able to fix a malfunctioning forehand. She did not serve nearly as well as she needed to. She could not stop a determined and assertive Henin from dictating play. And whenever Kuznetsova had a chance to make a move, Henin halted Kuznetsova in her tracks. Henin did not lose her serve despite serving seven double faults. She saved all six break points against her. The bottom line is that Henin played with near clinical efficiency.

While it was painful to watch Kuznetsova displaying so many flaws, it was a joy to see Henin capture her seventh major. Now she stands only one Grand Slam tournament crown away from Serena Williams for the most among active players. Henin moves ahead of Venus Williams. And if she stays healthy, Henin will surely reach double digits before she puts the racket down for good.

In any event, it is too bad the U.S. Open has had such a long run of good but not great finals among the men and women. The last five set men's championship match was Andre Agassi over Todd Martin in 1999. The last great women's final was in 1995 when Steffi Graf toppled Monica Seles in three glorious sets. Every female final since then has been decided in straight sets. That is a shame. The American fans deserve better.

Be that as it may, Federer and Henin reaffirmed their greatness and they won their titles with grace, sophistication and style. It is no accident that they rise to the occasion so often because these two champions are singularly professional.

Steve Flink is a weekly contributor to the

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