All tennis pros should hope to be so competent as Roger Federer at 34. So aesthetically pleasing, versatile and cagey. So entertaining. But, as Novak Djokovic demonstrated again in Sunday night's U.S. Open championship final, Federer indeed is No. 2 now.
When Djokovic flexes his flexibles as he did Sunday night, appearing to cover more ground than if he were being towed on roller skates; when Djokovic repeatedly rubs out apparent Federer winners with lunging, leaning, sliding gets, Federer eventually is stuck for answers.
Djokovic had to work for his 6-4, 5-7, 6-4, 6-4 victory, and Federer insisted that it "felt great" just to be back in a Flushing Meadows final for the first time since 2009 after winning the tournament five straight times from 2004 to 2008.
"Had a wonderful two weeks," Federer said. "Being back in the finals is where you want to be. Playing against a great player like Novak is a challenge. I enjoyed it."
But . . .
Federer no longer has the corner on the biggest points against Djokovic, who maintained control in great part by saving 19 of Federer's 23 break-point opportunities.
Theirs has become tennis' best long-running rivalry, now with 21 victories apiece. Federer is ahead in major-tournament titles with a record 17, but Djokovic now has 10, and he is six years younger.
"It's always tough playing against one another," Federer said of the jousts with Djokovic. "We walk away from this knowing more about our games and knowing more about ourselves. It's been a good rivalry."
Early in his career, he said, the generation of Lleyton Hewitt, David Nalbandian, Andre Agassi and Tim Henman "were guys I had trouble with at the beginning and made me a better player.
"Same with my generation coming up. [Juan Carlos] Ferrero, [Marat] Safin, [Andy] Roddick. I was trying to hang on with them and trying to be in that next wave of players making it to the top, and everyone made it to No. 1 before me.
"That was motivation for me, and definitely Rafa [Nadal] had a big effect, as well. Had to adjust and change so many things playing against him.
"Novak, it's been more straightforward. I feel like he doesn't need to adjust his game as much to me, either. It's just a straight shootout, and I think that's the cool thing about our rivalry. It's very athletic."
At this stage, Federer regularly is asked if he has considered how much longer he intends to play. "No, not really," he said. "I wish I knew. It would make my life easier. But I don't."
In fact, he believes his game continues to improve, even though his last major-tournament victory was the 2012 Wimbledon. "I love the sport," he said. "I've got a lot of passion." In a postmatch, on-court interview, Federer told the SRO crowd at Arthur Ashe Stadium, which was solidly in his corner all night, "I'll see you guys next year."