ROGER FEDERER stumbled. It was nearing 6:15 p.m., and he'd just dumped another routine backhand into the net. A shocked tennis world, a hopeful New York City crowd and a desperate Andre Agassi found themselves witnessing the sport's rarest sight: Federer, the epitome of grace under pressure, buckling as his game unraveled. So when that shot flopped into the net, giving Agassi a 4-2 third-set lead in a 2005 U.S. Open final deadlocked at a set apiece, and Federer finished the stroke with the slightest of trips, everyone at Arthur Ashe Stadium that September evening suddenly wondered: Is he actually going down?
Now here came Agassi. The 35-year-old son of a boxer pounded serves to his opponent's backhand like a middleweight working a cut and seized a 30-0 lead. The championship, a ninth Grand Slam singles title, seemed in Agassi's reach. Federer's serve had lost its customary bite, his ground strokes were a mess. He kept hitting short backhand slices for Agassi to feast on. "I had his back against the wall," Agassi would say.
"I started to feel it slipping," Federer says. "I definitely sensed, It's going his way here."
By any standard Federer had had a superb year going into the Open: the 2005 Wimbledon title, a 9-0 record in tournament finals (22-0 going back to July '03), just three losses in 67 matches. But two of those defeats had come at Grand Slam events--the Australian and French opens--and a loss in New York would have redefined the game's No. 1 player as vulnerable on the big stage. Federer needed this win. His ability to change tactics in mid-match has always been remarkable, but now he had to dig out quality shots on the run, against the toughest of opponents, with thousands screaming against him. And he did.
Yet, Federer admits, he almost can't take credit for the point that turned his year from superb to historic. At 4-2, 30-0 Agassi served to Federer's backhand again. Three strokes into the rally, Federer knew he had to do something special with his weakest weapon. And perhaps the most telling thing about him is that, at that crucial instant, he took a huge risk: He rolled a low-percentage inside-out backhand up the line. The shot wasn't clean. He shanked it, in fact. The ball veered, dipped and somehow landed in the corner. Federer hardly celebrated. He looked stunned and relieved, like someone emerging unscathed from a car crash.
"I got a little lucky," he says. "Let's say that shot goes out and it's 40-love. I'm not going to come back from there. It's 5-2 and a different match. But from 30-15 on I turned it around. It's all about staying in there and giving yourself a chance. The chance will come."
A lot of players say that, but Federer knows it. From 30-15 he broke Agassi with ease and then began grooving his serve for the first time all fortnight. Somehow, one bad shot had given tennis's greatest shotmaker his game back. But it took a bit longer for Federer to assume complete control. Four times he had Agassi, serving at 5-5, at break point, and four times Agassi escaped. "Federer's choking!" John McEnroe announced, but Agassi knew his chance was slipping away. Holding on for his tennis life, he ended the game by blasting a 118-mph serve down the T, then clenched his fist and shouted, "Yes!" The stadium shook. Here was the upset of the decade, the match of Agassi's career, the chance to win before his countrymen and retire in the best way possible, and....
Federer crushed him. This time luck had nothing to do with it. His serve now impregnable, he held easily at 5-6 to force a tiebreak. His backhand on form, he punished Agassi with it in the breaker, not a slice to be seen, finishing the 7-1 rout by rolling one last killer backhand and bellowing at the feel of it. Then he took the fourth set 6-1, becoming the first man in 68 years to win both Wimbledon and the U.S. Open in consecutive years. Afterward Agassi couldn't invent enough ways to say Federer was the best player he'd ever faced. "The standard and the options and the talent and the execution that he shows in all the biggest matches--it's crazy," Agassi said.
Crazy? No. For the last year or so Federer has been using a phrase that in his Swiss-accented English sounds odd. "Oh, I played zik tennis there," he'll say, and to virgin ears it takes awhile for the nickel to drop: Sick, he said. I played sick tennis. He never really defined it, not in words anyway, until that Sunday in Flushing Meadow. You had to see it to believe it. Zik tennis, indeed.