French Open

Roger Federer vs Novak Djokovic, French Open 2011

The Greatest Clay Court Matches Ever #4

The voice of Simon Reed, Eurosport's commentator, emphasized the emotion that tennis fans all across the globe were feeling the 3rd of June, 2011 – that they had just witnessed a battle of classic proportions. A battle that would go down as one of the greatest matches in the French Open's 120 years of history.

If you – for whatever reason – weren't glued to your seat during this three hour and 39-minute thriller, and heard Reed's quote without context back in 2011, you probably would assume that the players featured in this encounter were Novak Djokovic and Rafael Nadal.

You see, the two of them had been facing each other time and time again during the spring that year. Surprisingly – and at the time it was indeed surprising – it was Djokovic who had won not just a couple, but all of their meetings ahead of the French Open.

Not only did the Serb win the two hard court finals against the Spaniard in Indian Wells and Miami, but he also found a way to beat Nadal, who was still very much in his prime, on his beloved clay turf. And Djokovic won convincingly, not losing a single set in the two Masters finals in Madrid and Rome just weeks before the French Open. At the time it was a frankly incredible achievement. An achievement, not even the great Roger Federer would think was possible.

Speaking of Federer, it seemed to many that his best days were a memory. A few went as far as to suggest that the Swiss Maestro should retire and leave the game once and for all. He hadn't even reached a Grand Slam final in over a year. And much like Nadal, the then 29-year-old Federer hadn't been able to solve the Djokovic puzzle in 2011. Three times he had tried. Three times he had failed.

However, as it turned out, one of the gladiators Reed referred to was Roger Federer. He had just let out a liberating roar after firing an unstoppable ace on match point in the fourth set tiebreak.

But how did Federer, counted out by so many in 2011, manage to end Djokovic's historic start to the 2011 season?

And what was it exactly that made this French Open semi-final one for the ages? Well, the reasons are many, and each one of them too important to leave out. So, sit back with peRFect Tennis and relive the magic Federer and Djokovic conjured together as we take you through this epic encounter.

Additional Background

It was the first time the two rivals had met at the French Open. The Swiss went into the match with a 13-9 lead in their head to head matchup, as well as a 2-1 lead in their head-to-head on clay. But the favourite in everyone's mind was Djokovic, who was riding a 43-match winning streak dating back to late 2010 when he lost to Federer at the World Tour Finals in London.

Djokovic hadn't played for four (!) days when the players stepped onto Court Philippe-Chatrier. His opponent in the quarter-final, none other than the charismatic Italian Fabio Fognini, had withdrawn with a thigh injury. The withdrawal meant that Djokovic had earned his 43rd consecutive win, equaling John McEnroe's historic 1984 record. The question looming ahead of the semi-final was a big one: Could Djokovic go one step further than McEnroe?

First Set

In the first point of the match, the Serb sent his signature shot, the backhand down the line, long. His erratic start in the first game was telling. Was he finally feeling the pressure? Just as telling was Federer's start. He had been playing terrific during the first five matches at the tournament, not losing a single set. In the second point of the first game, he fired a forehand winner down the line. And when Djokovic mistimed a forehand on break point, Federer – as determined as ever – clinched his fist. It was evident that the 29-year-old was on a mission.

However, you don't go on a five-month winning streak to start the year by letting little slip-ups get to you. Djokovic was right back at it, and when his opponent mistimed a forehand of his own, it was one game apiece. In the third game of the match, the rivals began showing the kind of tennis that would make Reed, along with a lot of tennis fans, label the match as the best of the year. Djokovic, 24 years old at the time, played two stunning volley winners and a few moments later, Federer hit a backhand winner down the line to the crowd's great enjoyment.

Djokovic held his serve in what would prove to be the longest game of the first set. Shortly after that, he began applying the kind of pressure in the return games that Rafael Nadal had succumbed to that season. Up two break points on Federer's serve in the sixth game, Djokovic hit a cracking return. Federer didn't manage to get himself in position to hit the next shot, a forehand, and the break was Djokovic's.

The fear in the crowd began growing slowly. Would this even be a contest? Could Federer turn this around? Well, did I mention that the Swiss was seemingly determined? It turned out he was just as mentally focused as well. He held his own from the baseline and broke back immediately after turning defence into offence with two shots.

Despite breaking back, Federer found himself in trouble yet again when serving at 4-5. He handed Djokovic two set points when he put a routine backhand into the net. But Federer would prove clutch that evening as he erased both of them. The first one with a serve-and-forehand combination and the second one off a service winner.

The players headed into a tiebreak shortly thereafter. Federer didn't back down. At 1-1, he displayed the kind of virtuosity that many supporters had fallen in love with over the years. A slice crosscourt was followed by two backhands directed into Djokovic's forehand corner. They weren't just any backhands; Federer not letting himself get pushed behind the baseline, took both of them on the rise. He took control, finishing the point with a smash. Federer let out a scream of satisfaction. Djokovic, who was clearly not pleased with his shoes that day as he had slipped a couple of times, looked on with disbelief. And when the Serb hit a backhand into the net on set point at 6-5, Federer let out yet another scream – this time filled with joyous relief… and perhaps a little bit of belief. The set was Federer's: 7-6(5) after 70 minutes of play.

Second Set

In the first set, Federer had won just two out of ten breakpoints. When the match was over his conversion rate was a disastrous 4/25 – even worse than in the US Open final four years later where Federer was 4/23. But this was still a clutch performance from the then 16 time Grand Slam champion. He erased a breakpoint with an ace down the middle in the first game of the second set and went on to break Djokovic to go up 3-1 after the Serb's forehand approach clipped the net with such force that the ball went behind the baseline.

The net cord not being on his side wasn't Djokovic's only trouble, though. Just like in the first set, he kept slipping and sliding across the court. In the middle of the second set, he was so irritated that he didn't bother to move when looking to hit a routine forehand. The best mover in the game suddenly seemed glued to the court. Federer, who was really feeling the ball at this stage, kept knocking on the door and earned an additional four breakpoints. But as aforementioned, his conversion rate on those points was poor even for his own standards.

Unlike the first set which was filled with twists and turns, Federer made sure the second set was nothing like that. The early break was all he needed as Djokovic grew impatient, missing routine shots on multiple occasions at the end of the set. The Swiss had five set points at 5-2 but lost them all (does that sound familiar?). That could have proven costly as Djokovic seemed to find his range in the next game.

The Serb went back to basics – simply not missing, something that he did a lot better than Federer in 2011. But as terrible as the Swiss star was at converting breakpoints, he was just as good when faced with one. Boom. An ace. Boom again. A service winner. To Djokovic, it may have seemed like the greatest trick Federer ever pulled on the 3rd of June that year was convincing him that the chance didn't exist. Because within a blink of an eye, the opportunity was indeed gone. A few moments later, the set was Federer's. Djokovic hit a crosscourt backhand into the net on set point to hand Federer a two sets to love lead: 7-6(5), 6-3.

Third Set

Federer might have known that he was in fine form ahead of this match, but could he have imagined winning the first two sets against the man who had seemed unstoppable so far in 2011? Well, you don't become the greatest Grand Slam champion the sport has ever seen (on the men's side, it has to be added) without some belief and self-confidence.

While the crowd still hadn't settled down after what had happened in the first two sets, Federer had no reason to bide his time. He was going in for the kill. In the first game, he hit a beautiful inside out forehand to get to deuce. But Djokovic had found his rhythm. Not only on his serve – which he made sure didn't hand his opponent a breakpoint at the beginning of the set – but also from the baseline.

He had found his rhythm to the extent that he earned two break points in the next game. Federer saved the first one when he hit a first-class forehand volley, but he couldn't do much about the second one. The Serb hit his backhand with depth, such depth that Federer for a quick second stopped to check a mark close to the baseline. It threw the Swiss off as he completely mishit his next backhand and handed Djokovic the break.

For the first time in the match, it looked like the crowd was witnessing the best from the 24-year-old. He quickly held for 3-0, and when Federer approached the net in the first point of the fourth game, the Swiss could do nothing as his opponent fired a cracking backhand passing shot crosscourt.

Djokovic reached another breakpoint at 30-40, but Federer's brilliant serving bailed him out. He hit an ace that clipped the line, and after gaining advantage with a smart drop shot, he hit a second serve that kicked up too high for Djokovic to any damage.

The outcome of the set was never in danger, though. Djokovic seemed focused on the task at hand and aware that he still had a mountain to climb. He wouldn't find himself in a similar position again until the US Open semi-final that year, when… you guessed right, Federer had once again taken a two sets to love lead. Djokovic closed the set at love, ending it with an ace down the middle: 7-6(5), 6-3, 3-6.

Fourth Set

As the two legends took to the court to start the fourth set, one fact began growing like a cloud in many tennis fans' minds. You see, something would have to break. Would it be Djokovic's 43 match winning streak (41-0 for the year)? Or would it be Federer's 175-0 record in Grand Slam tournaments when being two sets to love up?

It was almost as if the two players had become aware of the fact themselves because, at the beginning of the set, both of them paid particular attention to their own service games. Neither player reached a breakpoint in the first five games.

With Djokovic serving in the next game, Federer made his first move. In the first point of that game, he played a smart drop shot that gave him an excellent passing shot opportunity. And on this day, Federer wasn't missing those. On the next point, Federer took control with three consecutive forehands and out of nowhere he was up 0-30 on Djokovic's serve.

The crowd, cheering louder than for some time, began sensing that this could be the moment that decided the match. Djokovic had other things in mind, however. He started hitting the ball with a real gladiator's live-or-let die attitude, and it paid off… for the moment being. When the Serb, back then ranked No. 2 in the world, got himself back to 30-30 he celebrated, letting out a scream while clenching both fists.

At the beginning of this fourth set John McEnroe, sitting comfortably in the commentating booth had begun talking about an upcoming fifth set, as if a Federer win in four sets was an impossibility. But you would have to forgive him for believing this – Djokovic had raised his level in the third set, and that level had been more than enough during his five-month stretch of dominance.

Federer, however, wouldn't cave in. Serving at 3-3, 30-0 he rolled back the years with defence reminiscent of his peak years, finishing the point with an outstanding one-handed backhand down the line. Federer raised his fist and then his index finger as if he was saying to Djokovic “You might be the Prince, but I'm still the King!”

The French crowd was on their feet, looking at Federer as if he was painting the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel, Michelangelo-style. Art comes in many forms and shapes, but in the sporting world, few athletes can hold a candle to the pure genius of Roger Federer.

In tennis, though, genius is sometimes not enough. Especially if your opponent is capable of some tennis magic of his own. Djokovic showed glimpses of that magic when he reached 0-30 on Federer's serve at 4-4 in the fourth set. His return was clicking, his backhand was perfect, and there wasn't much that Federer could do about it. The Swiss used his variety, but not even that was enough.

On the fifth deuce in the game, Djokovic hit the forehand of the match: A dazzling crosscourt shot on the run with full power. A laser-like forehand that Federer, who was in a good position, could barely get his racquet on. Still rattled by Djokovic's brilliance a few moments later, Federer's forehand hit the frame and Djokovic had the break he needed.

Or the one he – and everyone else – thought he needed. Even the most hardcore Federer fans must have been expecting a deciding set at this point, but once again the Swiss Maestro let his determination do the talking. Playing one of the return games of his career, he broke back with a beautiful forehand. Before that, he had shown his underrated defensive fortitude at 0-15 as well as hitting a stunning backhand down the line to get himself three break-back points.

Both players were now displaying their best tennis simultaneously, and I think it's safe to say that the crowd were getting their money's worth. The two players headed into a tiebreak, the second of the match. Federer, who had claimed the first one, immediately took control of this one too.

He won the first point with a forehand drop shot and then got the mini-break as he completely fooled Djokovic with a crosscourt forehand, going back to the Serb's forehand corner. Federer later gifted his opponent the mini-break back with a horrible backhand miss.

That would be the last present the Swiss would gift Djokovic that evening. At 3-3 in the tiebreak, Federer got the crucial mini-break when the Serb hit a forehand straight into the net. The 24-year-old covered his face with his white shirt, pearls of sweat dripping down. Federer followed it up with two brilliant serves: one ace down the middle and a service winner out wide to his opponent's forehand. Djokovic wasn't willing to give up just yet, though. He saved two match points, but he had still one left to face. And that one was on Federer's serve.

Unfortunately for Djokovic, the Swiss had saved the best one for last. After three hours and 39 minutes, the ball touched Federer's racquet for the last time during this epic encounter. The racquet guided the ball down the middle, out of Djokovic's reach.

Djokovic's five amazing months had come to an end – 41 unbeaten matches in 2011, 7 titles to his name. Federer's roar had ended it. He won: 7-6(5), 6-3, 3-6, 7-5(5). But as history would have it, Djokovic would have the last laugh that season.

In the US Open three months later, the Serb got his revenge, saving two match points in the comeback of the season in the semi-final against Federer. History would eventually show that their thrilling battle in the French Open semis would be Djokovic's only loss in Grand Slam tournaments that year. But more than anything else, this was a match for the ages: Filled with exquisite shot-making from two of the greatest players in the modern era – and all of that with history on the line.

As Reed put it, it was indeed the match of the year.


Raz Ols

Federer fan, tennis lover

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