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Spectator sport

Spectator Sport: The heavyweight champions of tennis

Roger Alton reviews the week in Sport

17 September 2011

12:00 AM

17 September 2011

12:00 AM

John McEnroe, who knows a thing or two about this sort of thing, said it was one of the best shots he had ever seen. The man who played it said it was a gamble, and it clearly broke the spirit of the man who received it. It was Novak Djokovic’s return of serve at 15-40 down, when Roger Federer was serving for the match in the deciding set of their utterly compelling semi-final at Flushing Meadow. Clearly thinking he had nothing to lose, and moving into some zen state of relaxation, Djokovic launched himself at a hard, fast serve wide to his forehand and unleashed a bullet that just dipped, unplayable, inside the sideline. It was quite as sensational as Carla Bruni’s jeans in Woody Allen’s charming back-to-his-best latest, Midnight in Paris.

Djoko then did a remarkable thing. Normally when he psychs himself the routine is of the chest-thumping, ‘I love Mother Serbia, and my village might be in ruins, but I will fight back, and maybe Slobo wasn’t such a bad thing after all…’ variety. This was much more reflective. He turned to the crowd in the volcanic Arthur Ashe stadium (surely one of the three best places in the world to watch sport) with his arms outstretched, almost ruefully, as if saying, ‘Look, that was some shot. I know you’re all rooting for Roger, and I’m sure I’m going to lose, but I’m not such a bad player after all.’ And then you could sense, almost see, the crowd moving behind Djoko, who had by this point recovered from being two sets down against a Federer playing out of his skin. As he crouched to receive, now at 30-40 down, he was smiling, he’d done his bit, he didn’t mind if he lost. But his opponent, the master of zen, had been out-zenned.

It was an extraordinary US Open. Blighted by illness, withdrawals and rain, as well as the appalling, laughably unpunished behaviour of the breathtakingly dislikable Serena Williams, it still yielded two of the greatest matches in history. That semi-final and, of course, the final exhausting slugfest of Djoko against Nadal. For me, in terms of sheer multiplicity of plot lines, the semi just shaded it for quality. It was also very moving, with the implicit acceptance by the players, and the crowd, that there might not be many more great matches, in New York or anywhere, for Federer. But we will be lucky to see the like again of these three great heavyweight champions of tennis battling it out. A couple of generations ago, you could find the same awesome power in heavyweight boxing, with Ali, Foreman, Frazier and Norton. Now that’s gone of course, but we should never overlook the splendours we have.

By chance, I travelled out to Buenos Aires the other day on the same plane as the Argentina rugby team, who were returning home after their quick tour of the UK. Like most rugby fellows they were absolutely immense, but amiable, straightforward souls, with forearms the size of hams. Even in the fractionally more wide open spaces of Premium Economy, with these boys around there wasn’t much room for the complimentary peanuts. I have always admired the Pumas, but now even more so: who could not fail to warm to the sight of these gigantic men sleeping quietly with their heads on each other’s shoulders? I liked them even more after their opening game against England, when they would unfailingly say ‘Sorry’ after being penalised for some unimaginable act of brutality. They failed to win, though they deserved to; not least because they had to contend with Courtney Lawes conducting a Rambo-style one-man war against anything in light blue and white. He has rightly been banned. So come on you Argies.

Roger Alton is an executive editor at the Times.

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