Tennis Prose



The Most Important Shot In Tennis History?

If there is one shot in the history of tennis that stands out above and beyond the billions of others, it may well be the Novak Djokovic forehand winner down double match point 15-40, 3-5 in the fifth set to Roger Federer at the 2011 US Open semifinal.

Djokovic had saved two match points in the 2010 US Open vs Federer so Federer was eager and inspired for vengeance. But Djokovic, who had won two majors and lost only two matches to that point in 2011 (he lost the French semi to Djokovic in four tight sets), defied him again and then won the match. Two years in a row, Djokovic slayed the mighty Swiss with sixteen Grand Slam titles to his name.

On the first match point, Federer directed his first serve at the Djokovic forehand which was struck perfectly clean with a Head Speed Pro racquet. The ball landed just inches inside the far alley side line. Federer made no attempt to retrieve it. Djokovic responded casually after the shot, striding over to the ad court for the next match point. He did wipe his brow with his right wrist band. Then he raised his arms, as if asking for the crowd to cheer louder. The stunned crowd obeyed the command. Djokovic was actually enjoying some amusement in the pressure cooker moment and smiled at his own brilliance, courage and quirky sense of humor. In contrast, Federer looked confused and tentative and even a little scared. The wounded animal is the most dangerous…

As Djokovic readied himself to defend the next match point, he managed to send a sinister, confident smile over to Federer. Federer, seemingly in a rush to end the contest, delivered a body serve that Djokovic evaded and returned with a backhand cross court which Federer danced around to hit an inside out forehand which hit the netcord, without enough steam or luck to go over net.

On the next point Federer’s second serve set up a forehand which Federer sent back to Djokovic’s forehand. Djokovic then hit an off pace forehand down the middle with some loop which the panicking Federer tried to attack inside out but his forehand landed well wide. It was Djokovic, with three total career Grand Slam titles in his pocket, who was cooler under pressure than the man with sixteen.

Federer aced the next point down the tee. On the next deuce, Federer netted a running forehand. On his third break point of the game, Federer, who won the first two sets 76 64, double faulted a few centimeters long. On the changeover he changed racquets and ate some banana.

Federer, attired in a Nike red shirt and black shorts and shoes, lost sets three and four 63 62. He would let Djokovic off the hook again in the fifth set. At 5-4, Djokovic, dressed in Sergio Tacchini white, held at 15 and then broke Federer at 15 for 6-5. He successfully served out the match to set up the final date with Rafael Nadal, which he won in four sets for his third Grand Slam in 2011 and his fourth overall.

But Djokovic saving those match points vs Federer was a pivotal, important moment which probably changed the course of tennis history. It was the fierce resistance to halt Djokovic’s amazing emergence in 2011. Had Federer won it could have changed the balance of power back to Federer, who had just turned 30. It could have derailed the 24 year old Djokovic from champion to contender. But saving those two match points contributed to elevate Djokovic’s confidence, ambition and game to another level. A level the sport had never witnessed before, above and beyond Federer and Nadal.

Djokovic would go on to win 15 more Grand Slams and he would save two more match points vs Federer – both in the 2019 Wimbledon final. Six match points Djokovic has saved vs Federer in Grand Slams to win all three of those matches and two of his 19 major titles.

Federer has never saved a match point to beat Djokovic in a Grand Slam. Federer has not beaten Djokovic in a Grand Slam since 2012 Wimbledon final.

After the 2011 US Open loss, Federer felt Djokovic got lucky, very lucky. “Yeah, I had it (mometum). There’s no more I could do. Snaps one shot, and then the whole thing changes. It’s strange how it goes, you know, but it was a good tournament for me. Sure, I’d love to be in the finals and give myself a chance to win the title, which is not the case now. So I have to accept that and move on.”

” Look, it happens sometimes. That’s why we all watch sports, isn’t it? Because we don’t know the outcome and everybody has a chance, and until the very moment it can still turn. That’s what we love about the sport, but it’s also very cruel and tough sometimes. It got me today. It hurts, but it’s fine. Could be worse. It could be a final.”

Federer said his first serve on the first match point was not an optimum strike: “I didn’t hit the best serve. But it’s just the way he returns that. It’s just not — a guy who believes much, you know, anymore in winning. Then to lose against someone like that, it’s very disappointing, because you feel like he was mentally out of it already. Just gets the lucky shot at the end, and off you go.”

Federer refused to give Djokovic much credit for making the shot:

Q. When a guy hits a shot like that forehand on match point, is that a function of luck, of risk, or is it a function of confidence that someone would make kind of…

“Confidence? Are you kidding me? I mean, please. Look, some players grow up and play like that. I remember losing junior matches. Just being down 5-2 in the third, and they all just start slapping shots. It all goes in for some reason, because that’s the kind of way they grew up playing when they were down. I never played that way. I believe in hard work’s gonna pay off kinda thing, because early on maybe I didn’t always work at my hardest. So for me, this is very hard to understand how can you play a shot like that on match point. But, look, maybe he’s been doing it for 20 years, so for him it was very normal. You’ve got to ask him.”

Of course, Djokovic’s perspective of the historic moments differed from his arch rival:

Q. This time last year you got to match point, you said you closed your eyes and went for it. Was that your mentality on that first match point today?
NOVAK DJOKOVIC: Yeah, I tend to do that on match points. It kinda works. (Smiling.) No, it was a very similar situation like last year. I had to take my chances. I was very close to being on my way back home. He was serving. He was 40-15 up.
Yeah, I mean, I managed to hit that amazing forehand return which got me back. I got a little bit of energy from the crowd, and I fighted back. I needed to stay positive, and I definitely didn’t want French Open to happen again. It was incredible last two games.

Q. Talk about your belief in your shots, that you’d be able to go for something like that. Roger almost seemed baffled that you would take that much of a gamble.
NOVAK DJOKOVIC: Well, if you’re playing somebody like Roger, you have to take your chances when they’re presented; otherwise you’re losing a match.
I don’t want to say, yeah, I’ve been in control of the fifth set, because that’s not true. He was serving for the match. He was match points, and I could easily lose.
But this is what happens at this stage of a tournament when two top players meet each other. Just a couple of points decide the winner.

Q. While this match does not yield a trophy moment, can you say that it is perhaps one of the greatest victories of your career?
NOVAK DJOKOVIC: It is, and it’s probably, under the circumstances, the greatest victory I had in 2011. I definitely think so.

Q. Why?
NOVAK DJOKOVIC: Why? Because I was two sets down, and I haven’t won many matches in my life when I was two sets down. You said five, six years ago was the last one, so…
Especially against Roger, who we all are aware of his quality. When he’s a set or two sets up, he doesn’t let you win. When he’s in control of the match he’s confident, and it’s really hard to get back into the match.
But I managed to play better, to switch gears, and I managed to play two incredible sets: third and fourth. Then I felt it’s the moment. You know, it’s the moment when I should step in and show what I got, and it paid off.

Of all the thousands or millions of shots you have seen in your tennis life, can you think of a more important, more memorable strike than Novak Djokovic down match point to Roger Federer at US Open 2011? I sure can’t.


  • Gaurang · June 25, 2021 at 3:50 pm

    Good writing Scoop. Agree this was a critical shot.

    Had a great psychological effect on Novak and Roger, which shaped the things to come.

  • Scoop Malinowski · June 25, 2021 at 4:36 pm

    Thank you Gaurang, I believe this too. Intriguing how one split second execution of tennis shotmaking could influence the future of the sport. Federer surely was devastated by Djokovic, especially those three times he failed to finish those six MPs.



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