NEW YORK — The chase is on.
Roger Federer used to shy away from talking about overtaking Pete Sampras in the Grand Slam record book. Not these days. Not with Sampras so close.
Able to come through when it counts the most, Federer just keeps adding to his trophy collection.
In the U.S. Open final Sunday, Federer sure offered his opponent plenty of chances to pull off an upset. He knows how to win these things, though, while Novak Djokovic is learning, and that made all the difference in Federer’s 7-6 (4), 7-6 (2), 6-4 victory for a fourth consecutive U.S. Open championship and 12th Grand Slam title.
Federer is the first man since Bill Tilden in the 1920s to win the American Grand Slam four years running.
He’s won the last five Wimbledon titles, too, along with three overall at the Australian Open. So on Sunday, still only 26 years old, Federer moved ahead of a couple of guys named Bjorn Borg and Rod Laver on the career Slam list and tied Roy Emerson for second place, two away from Sampras’ 14.
“I think about it a lot now,” Federer said of Sampras’ mark. “To come so close at my age is fantastic, and I hope to break it.”
How many Slams can he win?
“I don’t know,” Federer said. “I hope more than Pete.”
This one was a close call. The 20-year-old Djokovic was in his first Slam final, yet he led 6-5 in each of the opening two sets.
In the first, he held five set points. In the second, he held two.
Federer erased all of those, showing the craft and cool that have allowed him to hold the No. 1 ranking for the past 188 weeks, the longest run ever.
“My next book is going to be called, ‘Seven Set Points,’” Djokovic said, flashing the sense of humor he displayed while doing on-court impersonations of other players after his quarterfinal victory.
On a more serious note, the No. 3-seeded Djokovic said of Federer: “Once again, he showed he’s the best.”
In Djokovic, Federer was facing the only man to beat him over the past three months, but that was in early August at Montreal, not early September at New York, and in a Grand Slam tuneup, not the real deal.
So, not just talented with a racket but prescient, too, Federer pretty much predicted what would transpire. Shortly before walking out for Sunday’s match, he said knowingly, “It’ll be interesting to see how he handles the final.”
Afterward, Federer spoke about having enjoyed getting another shot at Djokovic.
“New guys challenging me — this is my biggest motivation out there,” Federer said. “Seeing them challenging me, and then beating them in the finals.”
In the end, about the only category Djokovic won on this day was “Most Intriguing Guests,” with 2006 Open champion Maria Sharapova — “just a friendship,” he said — and actor Robert De Niro sharing a box with his parents in the stands.
Federer was dressed for an evening on the town — all in black, from headwrap and wristband to socks and shoes, from shirt to shorts with tuxedo-like satin stripes down the sides — and he finished things under the lights by breaking Djokovic in the last game with the help of a no-look, over-the-shoulder volley winner.
It’s the type of shot that has prompted plenty of people to call Federer the greatest to ever swing a racket.
Which is why, at the start, it was surprising to see Federer struggle as much as he did. When he double-faulted, then sprayed two forehands long, Djokovic broke to go up 6-5, with a chance to serve for the set.
And then Djokovic raced to a 40-love edge.
Three set points.
Three chances to take a one-set lead against Federer in the U.S. Open final.
And just like that, they vanished: Federer hit a cross-court forehand winner that caught a line, and Djokovic missed two backhands.
Then came two more set points that Federer erased. Then, in the tiebreaker, Djokovic made three backhand errors and two double-faults, including on the last point.
“He knows what it feels like to be in that kind of situation. He knows how to cope with the pressure,” Djokovic said. “For me, this is something new.”
It showed again later.
When Federer served while trailing 6-5 in the second set, Djokovic let two more set points go by the wayside. Again they went to a tiebreaker, and again Federer was better. When he ended it with a backhand passing winner down the line — placing the ball through the one, tiny opening there was — Federer skipped toward the sideline, screamed and punched the air.
Djokovic had one last opportunity to climb back into the match, getting to love-40 when Federer served at 2-2 in the third set. But Federer took five points in a row, making Djokovic 2-for-9 on break chances.
Federer takes home a Grand Slam-record $2.4 million in prize money: $1.4 million for winning the tournament, plus a $1 million bonus because he finished atop the U.S. Open Series standings based on performances at hard-court tuneup events.
From 1970 to 2005, no man — not a single one! — reached all four Grand Slam finals in a calendar year. Now Federer has turned that trick two years in a row. Actually, his streak stretches back to 10 consecutive Grand Slam finals, and he’s won eight. And if it weren’t for a certain indefatigable Mallorcan who goes by the name Rafael Nadal — and beat him in the last two French Open finals — Federer might have won all 10.
About an hour after Sunday’s match, Djokovic walked outside the stadium to join about a dozen friends and relatives. He posed for photos, then Dad helped him pop a bottle of champagne. Clearly, Djokovic was happy to be here.
Federer wanted the victory.
He was asked whether Djokovic is ready to overtake the second-ranked Nadal.
“No. 2, No. 3 — it doesn’t matter much,” Federer said. “It’s No. 1 that matters.”