Vintage Roger Federer resurfaces

PARIS -- If he was coming off an unusual four days of rest in the middle of a Grand Slam, why did Novak Djokovic come out looking so terribly tired?

For the better part of the fortnight, Roger Federer has insisted he doesn't mind all the attention lavished on No. 1-ranked Rafael Nadal and the streaking No. 2 Djokovic. Sometimes, when he would insist the pressure was all on them (and not on him), it sounded like a hard sell.

Maybe, just maybe, it's true.

Djokovic was playing for the No. 1 ranking; a win against Federer -- the hunter now instead of the hunted -- would have given him the top spot he has dreamed of. And the streak of 41 straight match victories -- 43 going to last year's Davis Cup final? Well, as much as Djokovic said he didn't think about it, he would not be human if it didn't creep into his mind now and then.

For those of you wondering if Federer, owner of a record 16 Grand Slam singles titles, would ever win another one, Sunday's final (9 a.m. ET) will be must-see TV.

Yes, The Streak is dead.

"It was the best five months of my life," Djokovic said. "It had to end sometime. Unfortunately, it came in a bad moment. This is sport. I will keep working hard."

Said Federer: "I wasn't here to spoil the party. I was just trying to put in a good match. It almost feels like I've won the tournament. But the silverware is still out there to be won."

In the gathering twilight, Federer defeated Djokovic 7-6 (5), 6-3, 3-6, 7-6 (5) in an absurdly scintillating match that required 3 hours, 39 minutes. Embraced warmly by the crowd at Court Philippe Chatrier with every mounting success, Federer again looked like a champion playing in his prime.

When it ended, at 9:37 p.m. local time, he sauntered to the net, wagging his index finger. More than signifying No. 1, he seemed to be chiding those who believed he was no longer capable of matches like this.

The last man to beat Djokovic? Appropriately, it was Federer last November in the ATP World Tour final in London.

And now, we are blessed with a retro final between the two best players of their generation: No. 1 Nadal (if he wins, he will keep his ranking for at least another week or two) versus No. 3 Federer. You may have seen this movie before -- they've played 24 times in their careers. They have met three times here in the final, but not for three years.

Instead of facing Djokovic -- who has beaten him all four times they've met this season -- Nadal gets Federer, who he has defeated eight of the past 10 times.

"This is, obviously, another big match against Rafa," Federer said. "It doesn't feel like a big occasion unless he is in the final. I guess I got the match I was looking for. I've got to play some extraordinary, special tennis -- I'm aware of that."

The men's draw, which saw the top four seeds progress to the semifinals, has finally produced a surprise.

Federer was tremendous, channeling vintage form from, say, 2005, moving beautifully, attacking the net and serving with a power we haven't seen in a while. You never would have guessed that Djokovic had beaten him three straight times to start the year.

Djokovic, with those four days off, was slipping and sliding all over the cloying red clay. He never really gained a serious foothold after losing a tightly contested first-set tiebreaker.

The match had an awkward feel to it from the beginning. The men's semifinals at Roland Garros have always started at 1 p.m. local time, but the first match was always played before a number of empty seats because the VIP folks never bothered to get there on time. As a result, this year's start time was pushed back to 2 p.m., the same as the women's semifinals despite the fact the men play a best-of-five format.

When the Nadal-Andy Murray match marched on for 3 hours, 17 minutes, there were fears that darkness might halt the proceedings -- even if Djokovic was steaming along on a straight-sets mission. Well, what if it was Federer that was doing the steaming? Few had accounted for that possibility, which is what made the match so exceptional if you are a fan of the 29-year-old champion.

Federer pressured Djokovic early and often and even though they broke each other's serve twice, Federer had no fewer than 10 opportunities. Djokovic, playing in a passive-aggressive mode, seemed to be waiting for Federer to make mistakes. The Swiss, on the other hand, was feeling it. In the past he's been too stubborn to run around his backhand all that much; on Friday, when Djokovic homed in on it, Federer was willing to do the extra running to get to his far-stronger forehand.

The fourth game of the first set underlined Federer's ferocity -- and Djokovic's resilience. It required 18 points, ran 13 minutes long and ended with Djokovic saving four break points. They skipped along into the tiebreaker, with neither man holding a decided advantage.

Federer won the tiebreaker, winning the last two points when lackadaisical forehand efforts by Djokovic drifted wide and then into the net. It was 70 minutes of drama in all -- worthy of an entire match.

The second set was looking like an easy Federer frame, but Djokovic rallied. He actually had a break point with Federer serving for the set at 5-3, but a thunderous serve forced a deuce. And after some clever defense from Federer, Djokovic sent a weak backhand into the net.

Now, the only question was would they get the match completed before the light leaked away?

Djokovic, showing the new resolve we have seen since last year's U.S. Open, climbed back. He won the third set with the shortest set (37 minutes) of the match to that point. It was the first dropped set for Federer, after winning 17 in a row to start the tournament.

The fourth set was decided with Federer serving at 4-all. There were five deuces, some terrific stuff, before Djokovic hit a sublime running forehand from one corner to the other, which Federer couldn't run down. A massive forehand shank from Federer gave Djokovic a critical break. Or so it seemed.

Djokovic, serving to level the match, couldn't do it. Federer converted the third of three break points with a terrific forehand winner. And the Swiss still had a chance to close it out in four. Federer subsequently saved two breaks on his serve, and Djokovic was forced to serve his way into a tiebreaker, which he did.

At 3-all, Djokovic signaled that he had nothing left, pushing a sad forehand into the net. Federer's 17th ace made it 5-3 and another unreturnable serve outside gave him three match points. Djokovic saved two, but not the third. One last ace gave Federer the match few thought he could win.

Djokovic, who said he wouldn't play next week at Queen's Club, said he didn't think the four days off hurt him.

"I don't think I started slowly. I think I had a good first set."

Was he feeling the pressure of playing for the No. 1 ranking?

"There is always pressure, there is always expectations," he said. "Playing against Roger in the semifinals of a Grand Slam is always intense. He played really well in the big moments. Feels bad losing."

And then he laughed.

"It's the way it is," he continued. "I was serving for the fourth set and he played a couple of really good points. So he deserved it."

Was this Federer's best match of the year?

"Umm," Federer said, pondering." Oh, yeah, I would think so. I hope it was. It was played at a very high level for a very long time."

Perhaps, asked a British journalist, was this the best in men's tennis since the fabled Wimbledon final between Federer and Nadal in 2008?

"Possibly, yeah," Federer said, not exactly disagreeing. "I haven't disappeared since. I did some sacrifices. I wasn't lying on the beach."

Earlier, Nadal had called the matchup "the best player of the world today against the best player of history."

On Friday, anyway, history more than held its own.

Greg Garber is a senior writer for ESPN.com.