NEW YORK -- Dressed entirely in black but once again painting rainbows with his magical racket, Roger Federer reached down to wherever champions keep their hole cards and rallied to win his 12th Grand Slam title yesterday, edging to within two of tying Pete Sampras' record for major championships.
It was a perfect afternoon and early evening in which Federer played a lot of imperfect tennis, but at the end of his 7-6 (4), 7-6 (2) 6-4 victory, he had taught young Novak Djokovic that no matter how well you're playing and how poorly he's striking the ball, you still have to close it out. That's something the 20-year-old Serbian prodigy failed to do several times in this U.S. Open final.
Not only was Djokovic unable to hold late service breaks in the first two sets, but he also couldn't convert seven set points, five in the opening set, and he showed no composure in either tiebreaker.
Meanwhile, Federer shrugged off all his sketchy play in the big moments, showing Djokovic that tennis isn't only a physical game, but a mental one as well.
But despite his flawed performance in his first Grand Slam final, Djokovic had a point to make to Federer: Between him and 21-year-old Rafael Nadal, the next two major titles required to tie Sampras won't come easily.
Federer is at the top of his game and the overall quality of his performance has slipped a bit this year while Djokovic and Nadal still have upside to tap into. It doesn't take great prescience to understand that matches among these three players will only get closer in 2008.
Federer won this title on his second match point when Djokovic, perhaps more out of frustration than wisdom, tried to hit a backhand drop shot off Federer's service return. The shot was so short that everyone in the stadium knew from the moment it came off his racket that it would have trouble even reaching the net.
"I've been upset, nervous, cold hands, shaking the last few days. ... You never get used to it," Federer said about the pressure of winning his 12th major. He is the first man since Bill Tilden (1920-1925) to win as many as four consecutive U.S. championships.
Federer looked nervous and well off his game during most of the opening set and much of the second in a match that greatly resembled Djokovic's win over him in the Montreal final Aug. 12.
"Same thing what happened to me," Federer said. "I missed a few shots. The guy hit a few good shots. All of a sudden, back into the set. This time around, I could do it. But I felt it was really getting tense. I wasn't serving as well anymore, and from the baseline he was afraid to hit the ball."
Federer raced away with the second-set tiebreaker and warded off three break points in the final set.
Charles Bricker writes for the South Florida Sun-Sentinel.