As sports writers, we can conveniently resort to clichés when describing seminal moments in the lives of leading players. The landscape lends itself to hyperbolic accounts and over the top analysis, to descriptions that go above and beyond what actually happened, to depictions that are decidedly skewed and off base. That is the nature of our profession, and who among us has not been guilty every once in a while of writing about prodigious competitors and exaggerating what they have done or how they have achieved it? As scribes, we do our best to find balance and restraint but occasionally fall into the deep pitfalls of our trade. We can get carried away with either excessive praise or unreasonable criticism.
Be that as it may, I believe that Novak Djokovic could not afford to lose his BNP Paribas Open final round clash against Roger Federer at Indian Wells. A setback in that confrontation would have had potentially severe repercussions for the Serbian. Why was that the case? The answer is uncomplicated: Federer had won their last two head to head showdowns. He had overcome the Serbian in three of their last four meetings and four of the previous six appointments. Although Djokovic had halted Federer in a classic five set final on the lawns of Wimbledon last summer—emerging with a hard fought and well deserved victory in the biggest battle ever fought between the two men currently stationed at No. 1 and No. 2 in the world—Federer had bounced back emphatically from that setback. He had elevated his career record against the Serbian to 20-17, and there was a growing feeling among inside observers that Federer seemed recently to have rattled the psyche of Djokovic to a significant degree.
It was becoming increasingly apparent that Federer seemed to relish stepping out into the area to face Djokovic, while the Serbian carried himself frequently into these skirmishes with a degree of reluctance and an air of insecurity. From his standpoint, Djokovic sorely needed to restore order in his series with one of the sport’s iconic figures; in his mind, the world No. 1 had to assert his supremacy over the world No. 2 because a setback in the California dessert would have surely had lasting implications.
In the end, Djokovic realized a crucial mission when he surpassed Federer 6-3, 6-7 (5), 6-2 in an absorbing, exhilarating, brilliant yet uneven encounter. The 27-year-old came through the hard way after he seemed headed for a decisive, straight set triumph. He unmistakably revealed the depth of his anxieties about confronting the formidable Federer, but ultimately Djokovic was not found wanting.
Much was riding on the outcome of this particular final round match. Federer was shooting for an 85th career singles title, and hoping to capture a third crown early in the 2015 season. He had been beaten only once in 17 matches over the course of the year. The Swiss was looking for a record fifth crown at Indian Wells in his 15th career appearance, and he had lost only one of forty-seven service games in five matches on his way to the final. Federer had served with such extraordinary skill that he had faced only three break points during the tournament. As for Djokovic, he was going for a 50th career singles title on the ATP World Tour, and seeking to establish himself as only the twelfth man during the Open Era to reach that remarkable milestone. Moreover, Djokovic sought to become the first man since Lleyton Hewitt in 2002-2003 to take this prestigious title two years in a row. Djokovic was in full pursuit of a fourth Indian Wells title.
On top of all that, Djokovic was appearing in his 31st Masters 1000 ATP World Tour final, and hoping to secure a 21st title; Federer had won 23 of 39 previous final round duels at this level, and was thus searching for a 24th crown. To be sure, this was a very important tennis match for both players, but mostly for Djokovic, who could not justify a third consecutive loss to his toughest current rival. Federer had the better deal because he could lose with honor without victory being imperative. He was the slight underdog with the crowd overwhelmingly on his side and a positive mindset to boot. In many ways, Federer had everything to gain and little to lose, while the circumstances were reversed for the Serbian, who faced considerably more pressure.
And yet, Djokovic commenced the proceedings with utter assurance. Both men were striking the ball at a furious pace off both sides on a relatively slow court that was favorable to each player for different reasons. Djokovic signaled from the outset that he was in peak form. The Australian Open champion held at love in the opening game of the match, missing only one first serve, inducing errors from Federer with both the weight and pace of his shots. Federer retaliated by holding commandingly at 15, releasing a backhand drop volley winner and a pair of unstoppable first serves as he held for 1-1.
Even over the airwaves, the electric atmosphere was apparent as the two storied competitors settled comfortably into the contest. Djokovic held at love for 2-1 with an ace down the T, and then applied steady pressure on the Federer serve in the following game. A trademark low backhand passing shot crosscourt that coaxed the Swiss into an error at the net brought the Serbian to break point, but Federer saved it when Djokovic over-hit a two-hander crosscourt. Federer held on after two deuces with an ace out wide for 2-2, and then created an opportunity of his own.
Djokovic was down 0-30 in the fifth game, but he coolly came out of that corner, sweeping four points in a row for 3-2 as his ground game proved more reliable than Federer’s. The Swiss opened the sixth game by missing three first serves in a row, and once more Djokovic took control from the backcourt. He reached 0-40, arriving at triple break point. The Serbian sliced a backhand long to squander the first break point and then Federer followed with a serve-volley point. He coaxed a forehand return error from Djokovic. An ace out wide lifted Federer temporarily out of danger and back to the safe haven of deuce, but Djokovic went right back to work, garnering a fourth break point with perhaps the finest shot in his arsenal, driving a two-hander down the line, forcing Federer into an error off the forehand. Federer attacked on the next point but Djokovic stymied him with a low backhand crosscourt passing shot. The Swiss punched a difficult backhand volley wide down the line.
Djokovic had the upper hand, moving to 4-2, building momentum briskly. He held at love for 5-2, playing that game impeccably. A wide slice serve provoked a forehand return error from Federer. Djokovic aced his adversary down then T for 30-0, sent an immaculate first serve down then T to set up a forehand winner for 40-0, and released an exquisite service winner out wide in the ad court to close out that game and enlarge his lead. After Federer held in the eighth game, Djokovic served for the set at 5-3. Federer ran around his backhand in the deuce court for a scorching forehand return that was unmanageable for Djokovic, and the Swiss stood at 15-30. Djokovic was unflustered, sending a first serve down then T to elicit a forehand return error. At 30-30, a forceful inside out forehand provoked Federer into a backhand slice error, and then Djokovic held at 30 with another timely and unreturnable first serve to the forehand.
He had taken the set 6-3 with immaculately measured aggression off the ground and precision serving. In fact, Djokovic won 20 of 24 points on serve and put 71% of his first serves in play. He won all 17 points when he connected with his first serve. Federer reached just 52% on first serves, and won only 29% of his second serve points.
Djokovic marched on in the second set, delighted to be the front runner. He had won 37 of 38 previous career finals after sealing the opening set, and had been beaten by Federer only once in eleven prior appointments when he had taken the first set. The way he was thumping the ball off the ground and serving as well with supreme accuracy and extraordinary conviction on the second delivery, Djokovic was starting to look virtually invincible. Moreover, his returns were breathtakingly meticulous. After Federer held at 30 with a superb serve-volley combination for 1-0 in the second set, Djokovic continued his mastery of the match.
Although he struggled to hold in the second game, Djokovic was unyielding. Federer retreated swiftly and energetically for a spectacular overhead winner, reaching break point with that inspired play. But Djokovic unleashed a 125 MPH first serve deep to the Federer backhand, and the Swiss drove a return into the net. Some outstanding defense from Djokovic took him to game point, and he held on with a 127 MPH ace out wide for 1-1. Djokovic was ready to make another move, and sensing he would pull it off.
He broke Federer for 2-1 as the Swiss went only two for five on first serves. An errant smash from Federer gave Djokovic a 15-40 opening, and Djokovic seized his opportunity tellingly. He made a terrific return off a 124 MPH first serve, took charge of a big hitting rally, and Federer lost that point with a tame inside out forehand into the net. Djokovic had the break at 15 before finding himself in another bind on his own serve. Down 15-40, however, Djokovic stepped up propitiously with a service winner down the T at 128 MPH followed by a clever first serve kicker that drew a short return from Federer. Djokovic moved forward to crack a forehand winner crosscourt. After Federer missed a pair of daring down the line backhands wide, Djokovic moved to 3-1.
Federer was stretched to deuce in the fifth game, but he held on sternly, missing only one of eight first serves. Yet Djokovic surged to 4-2, holding at love, serving two aces in that game along with a scintillating backhand passing shot crosscourt winner. Now the Serbian was within striking distance of his first straight set triumph over Federer since the end of 2012. In the seventh game, an apprehensive Federer double faulted for 30-30, and then miss-hit consecutive shots in the next rally before directing a forehand crosscourt wide.
And so Djokovic stood at break point for 5-2, on the edge of a double break lead that would surely have been insurmountable for his opponent. But Federer was not ready to concede defeat. He served wide to the Djokovic backhand in the ad court and elicited a stretch return into the net. He quickly collected the next two points, but the fact remained that Djokovic still needed to simply hold service twice to wrap up a victory. The world No. 1 had yet to lose his serve, and the sting of his first delivery combined with the depth and variation on his second had been burdensome for Federer.
Serving in the eighth game of a compelling and suspenseful second set, Djokovic moved to 15-0 by concluding a riveting rally with an inside out forehand screamer that Federer barely touched. Federer took the next point but Djokovic advanced to 30-15 with his signature shot, lacing a two-hander down the line for a clean winner. The next point was critical in the shifting nature of the set. Djokovic approached on the Federer backhand, and tried to angle away a forehand swing volley. Federer tenaciously chased down that shot and flicked it back, but Djokovic was there for a backhand drive volley crosscourt. Federer not only ran that shot down but made an astonishing backhand half volley down the line that forced the Serbian away from the net. Djokovic was able to direct a forehand crosscourt to keep himself in the point, but Federer came forward purposefully and produced a dazzling forehand winner down the line.
That point featured Federer at his zenith, confirming his instinctive genius, proving that he still thought he could turn the match around. A chip-charge combination took Federer to break point but Djokovic saved it with an intelligent kick first serve setting up a scorching forehand behind Federer. But then an unsettled Djokovic double faulted to give Federer a second break point chance, and this one he converted by going inside in off the forehand, luring Djokovic into a running forehand error. The crowd response amounted to a collective, exhilarated, sustained and impassioned roar. The score was locked at 4-4. The complexion of the contest had suddenly yet inarguably been altered.
Federer was absolutely revitalized while Djokovic was seemingly resentful that the crowd was cheering so uninhibitedly for both his opponent and a longer match. Federer held at love for 5-4 with another magical move, manufacturing a forehand half-volley winner off a solid return from Djokovic. That quick hold and stunning shot earned Federer another prolonged ovation from the audience, and soon Djokovic was down 0-30 in the tenth game. He gathered himself to win the next two points, served an ace down the T for 40-30, but then missed a routine backhand passing shot after Federer bluffed his way forward behind a forehand return. At deuce, however, Federer missed a topspin backhand crosscourt narrowly long, and Djokovic released another ace down the T for 5-5.
Both players served confident love games to set up a tie-break, and that sequence was contested with considerable anxiety on both sides of the net. Djokovic gained the first mini-break for 3-1 when Federer sent a forehand drive volley approach long. Yet Federer took the next point and then found level ground at 3-3 when Djokovic double faulted long. Djokovic quickly collected the next point and then went to 5-3 by lofting a deep topspin lob off the backhand that provoked a netted overhead from Federer. The Serbian fought in vain to widen his lead. In a 28 stroke exchange, both players used every inch of the court and fought with all of their resources. Federer displayed his inimitable flair with a backhand drop shot approach that Djokovic countered with an angled forehand pass crosscourt. Federer read that play well and punched a low forehand volley down the middle. Djokovic had a decent look at a backhand passing shot crosscourt, but netted that shot because the Swiss player’s volley stayed reasonably low.
Once more, the crowd was eupeptic. Djokovic still had a chance to close out a stirring account on his serve, but his lead was 5-4 rather than 6-3. Perhaps drained after losing that strenuous point, Djokovic could not regain his emotional equilibrium. Improbably, he served back to back double faults to the astonishment of the frenzied fans. Now Federer was serving at set point, ahead 6-5, and determined to exploit an unexpected opening. He served-and-volleyed behind his first delivery, made an excellent backhand first volley crosscourt, and drew an errant lob long from a shocked Djokovic. Two points away from a straight set defeat three times, the highly charged Swiss was back in the match at one set all, and the crowd showered him again with unrestrained and heartfelt applause.
Federer took a bathroom break at that stage while Djokovic sat incredulously in his chair at the changeover. He could not fathom how his lead had evaporated and why he even needed to play a final set. Federer returned, play resumed, but the burst of inspiration, aggression and brilliance that Federer had found at the end of the second set swiftly disappeared. Aided by a cluster of unforced errors from Federer, Djokovic held without much effort at 15 for 1-0. The 33-year-old Swiss rallied from 0-40 to 30-40 in the next game. He serve-volleyed but Djokovic kept his return remarkably low. Federer’s backhand half volley landed wide. Djokovic had the immediate break for 2-0, and was back in command.
Inexplicably, the top seed tightened up again. He was up 30-0 in the third game. He had won 10 of 13 points to open the final set. Federer looked fatigued and had thoroughly lost his range off the ground. But Djokovic missed a routine two-hander crosscourt and then butchered a backhand volley down the line with a glaring opening for a 40-15 lead. The two competitors battled it out through four deuces before Djokovic double faulted and then wearily netted a backhand slice to lose his serve. Was he nervous, tired or a combination of both? It was probably largely about his deep inner tension. Federer bolted to 40-15 in the fourth game before Djokovic ripped consecutive winners off the forehand. But the Swiss held on as Djokovic missed a relatively easy passing shot and Federer delivered an ace out wide. Back to 2-2 was Federer.
Djokovic was surely reeling from his many missed connections, but he reasserted himself in the nick of time, holding at 15 with gusto, crushing a forehand crosscourt to set up a forehand winner behind Federer. The Serbian was ahead 3-2 on serve, but Federer raced ahead in the following game with some stellar attacking play. He put away an overhead for 15-0, lost the next point on an errant first volley, knocked off another smash for 30-15 and then reached 40-15 with a scintillating backhand drop volley winner on the stretch. But he missed a forehand crosscourt approach wide. Djokovic travelled to deuce with a magnificent return creating an avenue for an approach to the Federer forehand. The Swiss netted his passing shot. Djokovic angled a forehand crisply crosscourt to elicit a running forehand error from Federer, and now the Serbian had break point for 4-2.
Federer missed the first serve, and went for a second serve kicker in the ad court. He double faulted wide to allow Djokovic a reprieve. Seldom if ever have I seen Federer double fault in that fashion, by sending it wide in the ad court. The defending champion would not waste this chance. He soared to 40-0 in the seventh game as Federer committed a pair of forehand unforced errors and one off his backhand side. Federer took the next point with a superb backhand return winner, but Djokovic aced Federer down the T at 130 MPH (his biggest serve of the match) to hold at 15 for 5-2.
Federer’s comeback heroics were over. Serving to stay in the match, he fell behind 0-30, served-and-volleyed his way back to 15-30 with an inside out, sidespin, forehand volley winner off a good return, but then totally miss-hit a forehand long to give Djokovic double match point at 15-40. Federer fended off one match point but missed off the forehand again on the second. Djokovic had pulled away inexorably down the stretch, winning the last four games from 2-2 in the final set, taking the skirmish 6-3, 6-7 (5), 6-2. He had broken Federer no fewer than five times across the three sets and had lost his own serve only twice, saving eight of ten break points.
On a hard court that was much to his liking--- not too fast and not too slow—Djokovic had outperformed Federer from the baseline off both wings. He served with greater precision than Federer, and his exemplary return of serve was simply too good. Djokovic kept Federer off balance and ill at ease in too many backcourt exchanges. Late in the second set and briefly in the third, Federer found a way to disrupt the supreme rhythm of Djokovic in the rallies, but that successful Swiss formula was evanescent. Federer made it very interesting, and avoiding a straight set loss was admirable on his part. But it was an uphill struggle all the way through.
What struck me the most was the astounding quality of the baseline ball striking from both players over the first two sets. It was often mind boggling stuff and the riveting pace they set seemed to eventually catch up with both players. The level of play for most of the third set was not of the same lofty standard as the first two. Djokovic knew he should have closed it out in straight sets, and realized that he was choking. But the fact remains that the realignment of his game and the restoral of his poise and perspicacity in the latter stages of the encounter were commendable; he had faltered but not fallen. He knew full well that losing to Federer again might have sent him into a tailspin for a long while. In a must win situation, he found a way to prevail despite getting dangerously in his own way.
Meanwhile, Andy Murray advanced to the penultimate round at Indian Wells for the first time since reaching the final in 2009. But Murray suffered his most one-sided, best of three sets loss to Djokovic since 2008 as the Serbian took him apart 6-2, 6-3 in the semifinals. He lost so badly for three reasons: the greatness and invulnerability of Djokovic; a bad day off the forehand and on serve for the British player; and a miserable Murray mentality. Murray did not compete well as Djokovic upended him for the 17th time in 25 career head to head meetings. His attitude was abysmal, and Murray can only blame himself for that. He won only 27 of 55 points on serve. Djokovic was outstanding, but Murray must demand more from himself than he gave that day.
Milos Raonic was the fourth men’s semifinalist, and his quarterfinal upset of Rafael Nadal was the match of the tournament. Nadal took the first set on the strength of one service break. He had a bundle of chances in the second set. Five times in three different service games, Nadal made it to break point, but he could not convert against one of the game’s three greatest servers. At 4-5 in the second set, Nadal battled his way out of two break (and set) points. They went to a tie-break and the Spaniard thrice was at match point. Raonic was strikingly calm and unbending at those moments. He put away a daring and difficult bounce smash (at 129 MPH!) on one match point against him, approached aggressively on the Nadal forehand to force an error on another, and then benefitted from a bungled Nadal second serve return off the forehand in the ad court on the third. Raonic took that tie-break 12-10.
Nadal still seemed poised for victory. He had a break point for 4-2 in the final set that Raonic erased with an ace. Until 5-5 in the third, Nadal had not lost his serve all day, but Raonic broke him there with a lucky lob off the forehand that fell on the baseline and led to an error. Raonic prevailed 4-6, 7-6 (10), 7-5 despite living dangerously through the whole match. Nadal won 116 points in the match, ten more than the victorious Raonic. This was clearly a case of Raonic pulling through with immense poise under pressure because Nadal played his best tennis of 2015. His court coverage was much more like the Nadal of old. His inside-out forehand and his forehand down the line were terrific for two sets and good all the way through. He mixed up his return of serve positioning and forced Raonic into some awkward corners. The Spaniard did not win, but his game looked vastly improved in many ways. We will see where this leads in the weeks ahead.
Raonic, of course, was ousted 7-5, 6-4 by a cagey and concentrated Federer. The match was essentially decided at 5-5 in the opening set, when Raonic rallied from 15-40 to earn a game point, only to lose his serve and be denied a tie-break opportunity. Federer picked him apart as usual with low backhand slices. Raonic was far too predictable on serve, and Federer exploited that to get an early break in the second set. The Canadian let one big chance elude him when Federer served out the match at 5-4 in the second set. At 0-30, Raonic had a setup inside out forehand but he missed it badly. The striking big point prowess displayed by Raonic against Nadal was missing in his duel with Federer, but at least the big fellow is slowly progressing year by year.
As for the women, Simona Halep somehow found a way to halt the guileful Jelena Jankovic 2-6, 7-5, 6-4 and thus claim the crown. Jankovic—the 2010 Indian Wells champion—had won only one tournament since then, but came awfully close this time around to capturing another big title. She served for the match in the second set but could not close it out. Both players broke nine times in this protracted showdown. Halep won 48% of her total service points and Jankovic took 47% of hers. Each player won 100 points in the contest. It was a returner’s match across the board, but Halep deserved her triumph in the end. She validated her No. 3 world ranking by winning her most important tournament to date. The Rumanian might well become the chief challenger to Serena Williams in the battle for No. 1 this year.
Serena, of course, was the central figure at the BNP Paribas Open. She returned to Indian Wells for the first time since 2001, when her family was embroiled in a very unfortunate turn of events. An injured Venus Williams defaulted her semifinal to Serena in the semifinals that year about ten or fifteen minutes before they were due to collide. That left a bad taste in the mouths of many fans, who behaved boorishly and unacceptably when Serena took the court against Kim Clijsters in the final. They booed Serena Williams for an uncomfortably long time, and when Venus walked into the stands with her father to watch the final, there were racist remarks made—at least according to Richard Williams.
He should be taken at his word on that. Meanwhile, Serena managed to win the title over Clijsters despite the bad behavior of the fans and the ugly atmosphere. And yet, should the Williams family have held an almost permanent grudge against the tournament and the Indian Wells fans?
I think not. If Venus and Serena had come out on court the evening of the 2001 default and addressed the fans the way Federer spoke to the audience in London last November after he defaulted the final to Djokovic, things might have played out very differently. I believe they could have come out on the court and signed autographs together, and would have created a lot of goodwill had they been willing to do so back in 2001. In any case, here was Serena coming back to Indian Wells 14 years later. I think the family should have been willing to forgive a lot sooner than that. What if the incident had occurred at the U.S. Open? Would they have boycotted their national championship and a Grand Slam event year after year? I think not.
In any event, Serena Williams was very emotional upon her admirable return. She made it to the semifinals but then pulled out of her semifinal against Halep with an injured knee. Thankfully, Serena agreed to be interviewed on court and came across graciously. The crowd appreciated her gesture. The hope here is that she is back at Indian Wells next year. Venus Williams should be willing to return as well, although she was not willing to do so this time around. Serena surely carries many of the same emotional wounds as Venus from the 2001 controversy, but she moved past it this year with dignity and understanding. Venus Williams should do the same next year, and she would be welcomed every bit as warmly as her sister was in 2015. They would have been given a very positive reception if they had gone back to Indian Wells as early as 2002 or 2003. Serena’s return was long overdue and much appreciated by the fans.
But, ultimately, Djokovic was a singularly transcendent individual at Indian Wells in 2015. He somehow overcame his demons, the crowd’s enduring affection for Federer and a hard set of circumstances to win the BNP Paribas Open for the fourth time in his enviable career. He demonstrated a lot of character by stopping a premier rival at a critical moment when defeat would have left him devastated. Djokovic just might be heading into another golden stretch in his sterling career.
Steve Flink has been reporting on tennis since 1974. He has been a columnist for tennischannel.com since 2007. You can purchase Steve's latest book "The Greatest Tennis Matches of All Time" here.
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