- Greg Garber, Writer, Reporter
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NEW YORK -- When destiny's invitation was extended, with five fat first-set points on his serve, Novak Djokovic respectfully declined.
The dashing 20-year-old Serbian went quietly in the tiebreaker, double-faulting twice on his last three serves. In the second set, Djokovic had another set point (his seventh overall) hovering at waist level, stepped into it and -- ripped it just long. He could have -- should have -- won the first two sets, but instead he lost them.
Admittedly, Roger Federer did not play his best in Sunday's U.S. Open final. But just as he did at Wimbledon against Rafael Nadal, he managed to beat a talented, rising young rival. He spoiled Djokovic's first Grand Slam final appearance with a typically ruthless and mercenary effort, 7-6 (4), 7-6 (2), 6-4.
"I've enjoyed the challenge of young guys challenging me," Federer said afterward. "This is probably my biggest motivation out there. You know, seeing them challenge me, beating them in the final, it's really for me the best feeling, to be honest."
Upon those two less-than-lovely victories does the axis of men's tennis rotate. Federer has, once again, distanced himself from the field. He may not have had Maria Sharapova sitting in his family and friends box, but there is this consolation: He is on the brink of history.
Federer's 12th Grand Slam singles title pushes him past two titans of tennis, Bjorn Borg and Rod Laver. The 26-year-old from Switzerland is now tied with Roy Emerson and only two behind Pete Sampras.
"I think about it a lot now, honestly," Federer said. "In the beginning, I felt pushed a little bit into the corner, put under pressure about the situation because you don't win Slams like that; it's too tough.
"I feel these two-and-one-half weeks, it's so draining. I'm exhausted in the end. I know how tough it is. So to come so close already at my age is fantastic, and I really hope to break it."
Break down those Grand Slams in a simple graph that plots titles against age, and you will find that Federer is far ahead of the Sampras curve. In 2004, at the age of 22, Federer accelerated onward and upward with startling speed.
He won three of the four Grand Slams that year, something he has now done three of the past four years. This is a remarkable achievement, and it is difficult to appreciate its degree of difficulty. Each Grand Slam draw features 128 men with a chance to win. Factor in the uncertainty of injuries, recent form, training motivation, fatigue and widely varying court conditions, and Federer still has won 12 of the past 18 Grand Slams contested.
For context, consider that Borg's 11 Grand Slams were won in an impressive span of 21 appearances. Sampras' best streak was 9-for-17.
Perhaps the best way to compare Federer and Sampras is to look at their Grand Slam titles versus the opportunities. Sampras won his 12th major in his 40th Grand Slam tournament. Federer needed only 34. Sampras won his 13th and 14th Grand Slams in his 43rd and 52nd attempts, respectively.
It is hard to imagine Federer needing 18 more Slams to collect two more titles. That's the margin for error he has generated over Sampras.
To review: Federer has won five straight Wimbledons, four straight U.S. Opens and two straight Australian Opens. Any questions?
Federer's dominance has folks on the message boards, in the media and even the fans at Arthur Ashe Stadium keening for a new champion, aching for some drama. Why? You are seeing a champion in his absolute prime; this is as good as it gets.
The past two years, only Nadal has prevented Federer from winning a single-season Grand Slam. Based on those two finals (Federer lost in four sets), it's conceivable that Federer could actually break through at Roland Garros and win his first French Open title. It is just as possible that Nadal will return the favor at Wimbledon, where he has reached the past two finals and almost beat Federer in a spirited five-set match in July.
Even with Federer's three majors this year, there is evidence that his game has maxed out. He lost two sets on the way to the final, something he hadn't done since last year's French Open. And giving Djokovic seven set points is not something that, going forward, is advisable. You get the idea that with another year of experience Djokovic won't tighten in so many big moments.
"I think I was mentally weaker today on the important points," Djokovic said, "than he was mentally stronger."
So let's break it down and see how many Grand Slam titles Federer is likely to collect by the time he leaves the game.
Based on his public comments, those close to the game believe Federer is likely to play at least until he's 30. So, to be conservative, let's give him four more seasons. That's 16 Grand Slam opportunities. For two of those years, 2008-09, he is still likely to be in his prime and supremely motivated to break Sampras' record.
Federer is likely to benefit from the expected faster surface at the Australian Open, so give him one of the next two. Considering the improvement of Nadal and Djokovic, again, conservatively, give him one more Wimbledon and U.S. Open title. That's three in the next two years, and that would be enough to break the record.
Would it be possible for Federer to go two years, 2010 and 2011, without adding to that total? Not likely.
"I think he'll get to 18," said Bud Collins, the longtime tennis maven and a contributor to ESPN.com.
Said Peter Bodo of Tennis Magazine, who also is a contributor to ESPN.com. "Maybe 16, 17? He could have 18. It's pretty phenomenal. You kind of run out of things to say. Just sit back and watch excellence.
"The late Open era has blown up the record book. It seems like every generation produces the greatest player ever. After Laver, they used to debate whether Connors was the greatest, and now Federer.
"The landscape has changed. Maybe the all-time Grand Slam winner someday will have 30 Grand Slams."
What about Federer? How many does he think he'll finish with?
"I don't know," he said, shaking his head. "I really don't know. I mean, I hope more than Pete."
The two have grown friendly, and after the ATP's year-end tournament in Shanghai this November there will be three exhibitions between Federer and Sampras in the Far East. To be followed, Federer said, by a March 10, 2008 exhibition at Madison Square Garden in New York.
"I think Sampras and Federer have this thing in common," Djokovic said. "They are very similar in that they are mentally very strong in the important moments; they always play their best. They're ice-cold faces, just going for the shot.
"That's why they're [the] two best players ever for me."
Federer, clearly, is growing more comfortable in his role of tennis' leading man.
An hour before the late-afternoon match, seven-time Grand Slam titlist John McEnroe walked through the locker room and was stunned to see Federer wearing his all-black evening outfit.
"Are you serious?" asked McEnroe, aware that black tends to make the sun feel even hotter.
Federer smiled and nodded.
"Very gutsy," McEnroe said.
Bring the heat, Darth Federer seemed to be saying; I am not afraid to be the villain.
"I thought all-black is kind of a cool thing," Federer said. "I can only pull it off in New York."
There was a decided edge to Federer in his postmatch press conference. He talked some subtle, high-end trash (see his first quote above) -- and even though he was smiling, he seemed quite serious.
Federer was asked if Djokovic, ranked No. 3, might be ready to take No. 2 from Nadal.
"It's getting closer," Federer said. "It probably depends on who finishes better at the end of the year. No. 2, No. 3 doesn't matter much.
"It's No. 1 that matters. That's how it goes."
Greg Garber is a senior writer for ESPN.com.