A thumping physical confrontation testing mind, muscle and sinew to the ultimate degree, and from which there could only be one winner. No, not the upcoming Rugby World Cup but the breathtaking confrontation between Roger Federer and Novak Djokovic in the US Open final. Rain delays meant that for British audiences it didn’t start till the small hours, and only we dedicated insomniacs could catch it. A pity, because it was one of the most bruising and thrilling of their 42 battles, stretching back over eight years. It even had a garnish of audience bad behaviour —what else do you expect from the Yanks? — which Novak acknowledged with his characteristic amazing grace.
The score between these two great heroes is 21 matches each: has there ever been an individual sporting rivalry to touch it? In the end Federer won just two points fewer than the Serb though Djokovic’s superiority (he won by three sets to one) felt just a bit more than that as the match unfurled. A highlights tape would last almost as long as the match itself, so intense and brilliant were the shots, full of astonishing defence, powerful net play, especially from the Swiss, incredible defence, as well as Federer’s occasional assaults on his opponent’s second serve: that’s called Sabr, by the way — Sneaky Attack By Roger — where the Fed advances on to the court to take the second serve on the half volley. It is brilliantly executed and formidable gamesmanship. Roger’s saying, ‘That’s what I think of your second serve.’
For me the extraordinary highlight was the tenth game of the second set, and I beg you to watch it if you can. It lasted a full 15 minutes with Federer leading 5–4 and Djokovic serving. In the end the world No. 1 held serve, though Federer went on to take the set two games later. The tenth game had no impact on the outcome of the match, but illuminates what exceptional drama these two giants have brought to our sporting life. He had his chances, Federer, but could only convert four of his 23 break points.
How long can it go on? Federer is now 34, and his last Grand Slam was at Wimbledon in Olympic year, when he beat Andy Murray. In 2012 he was the first thirtysomething to win the men’s title since Arthur Ashe in 1975. Roger’s longevity is almost beyond belief, but time is running out now. His amazing display at Flushing Meadows, not dropping a set until the final, could be his last bow. Gosh, the world hopes not, but all good things…
Meanwhile, it’s time to get the beers in, the Rugby World Cup is about to start and what better excuse for a booze-up than a bit of aggro with the All Blacks. Ali Williams, who won 77 caps for New Zealand and played in three World Cups, has revealed to L’Equipe that everyone hates England, everyone hates being beaten by England, and English supporters at Twickenham behave in a generally hateful way. If England win, says Williams, it will be a ‘dark day’, not just for rugby presumably, but the world at large. Well, jolly good and bring it on, because what Williams overlooks is that everyone else hates the All Blacks and their smug superiority.
Here’s what we will learn and relearn over the next few weeks. On no account underestimate the Pacific Islanders, Fiji, Tonga and Samoa. They are all enormous, fast and very physical, but ill-disciplined, too, which can jack up the penalty count. They also tend to believe in God, which may or may not be a great help. The South Africans are hard as rock, the Argentines can scrummage like tigers and the All Blacks never know when they are beaten. Nothing is easy, and the wheels might come off the English chariot before Jerusalem gets built.