So much for Rafa vs. Roger in the U.S. Open final.
Novak Djokovic prevented what would have been the eighth Grand Slam championship match between tennis' top two men — and first such showdown at Flushing Meadows — by saving two match points and coming back to stun Roger Federer 5-7, 6-1, 5-7, 6-2, 7-5 in Saturday's semifinals.
“One of those matches,” Djokovic said, “you'll always remember in your career.”
It means that the third-seeded Djokovic will be standing between No. 1 Rafael Nadal and a career Grand Slam in the final Sunday. Nadal owns eight major titles but never had been past the semifinals at the U.S. Open before beating No. 12 Mikhail Youzhny 6-2, 6-3, 6-4 on Saturday.
Federer had reached six consecutive finals at the U.S. Open, winning five trophies from 2004-08, but he repeatedly let leads slip away this time. Federer took the first set against Djokovic, then the third. And even after Djokovic forced a fifth set, Federer twice was a single point from winning.
With the crowd in Arthur Ashe Stadium trying to will Federer to victory — probably because of the tantalizing prospect of a final between him and Nadal — the owner of a record 16 Grand Slam titles couldn't seize his chances.
Djokovic saved the match points while trailing 5-4 and serving. He erased the first with a swinging forehand volley winner to cap an 11-stroke point, and the second with a forehand winner, then wound up holding for 5-all. The only service break of the fifth set would come in the following game, when Federer missed forehands on the last two points to allow Djokovic to go ahead 6-5.
Djokovic then served out the victory — although only after saving one last break point. Federer let that slip by pushing a forehand long, then set up Djokovic's first match point with a forehand into the net.
The last point went 22 strokes, with Djokovic displaying some of the tremendous defense he used all match, until Federer sent a backhand wide.
Djokovic held his arms up, and looked up at his guest box, where his parents — both wearing T-shirts emblazoned with likenesses of their son — were jumping and hugging. Djokovic stared ahead, his jaw agape, as though even he couldn't quite believe what he accomplished.
“It's really hard to describe the feeling I have right now,” Djokovic said in an on-court interview. “Ten minutes ago, I was a point from losing this match, and now I managed to come back.”
It actually was about 18 minutes from Federer's first match point to Djokovic's, but you get what he meant.
Djokovic had lost to Federer at each of the previous three U.S. Opens, in the 2007 final and the 2008-09 semifinals. That was part of why everyone was expecting to see the 22nd career meeting between Federer and Nadal. They would have been the first pair of men to meet in the finals of all four Grand Slam tournaments.
Instead, Sunday's final will have, coincidentally, the 22nd career meeting between Djokovic and Nadal, one of whom will become a U.S. Open champion for the first time.
“To be honest, I was just closing my eyes and hitting forehands as fast as I can on match point. If it goes in, it goes in. If it goes out, just another loss to Federer in the U.S. Open,” Djokovic said. “I managed to come back. I was very lucky.”