By Steve Flink
The old axiom that “records are made to be broken” is a label which has been worn often and convincingly by one Roger Federer. The Swiss habitually makes history of some kind just about wherever he goes, for as long as his career has unfolded, with his own inimitable style. His latest feat of consequence is winning the Western & Southern Open in Cincinnati for the fifth time to set a record, and simultaneously capturing his 21st Masters 1000 singles crown, a feat which places him in a tie with Rafael Nadal. And yet the 31-year-old displays no trace of a waning range of ambition. He simply keeps trying to move beyond himself toward the ceiling of his talent. When the skeptics start questioning his authority or doubting his chances, Federer drives himself inexorably all over again, dancing away with more titles and a revitalized spirit.
And so it was in Cincinnati. He halted Novak Djokovic 6-0, 7-6 (7) with first rate play across the board, poise under pressure toward the end, and an unwavering desire to win. Here was the ultimate professional showing up for work with the right priorities and a positive attitude. It was commendable in every way. But, conversely, Djokovic was desultory all across a 20 minute first set. He was unfocussed, lethargic, and devoid of any real intensity. Federer and Djokovic were meeting for the 28th time over the course of their careers, and Federer now extends his lead in the series to 16-12. But never before in their illustrious rivalry had either player won a 6-0 set. Djokovic seemed resigned to defeat at that stage. It was as if he wanted to be anywhere else but on a tennis court. He hardly seemed to be trying.
In the opening game of the match, Djokovic served an ace out wide in the deuce court on the first point. But he immediately netted a routine inside-out forehand before Federer gracefully made his way up to the net for a neatly disguised drop volley winner. Then Djokovic double faulted for 15-40. Although he won the next point, he was broken at 30, inexplicably missing another routine inside-out forehand that was hit with no conviction. Djokovic had not been broken in the entire tournament, holding 31 consecutive times. But he virtually gave that game away. Federer served an excellent game to hold for 2-0, connecting with four out of five first serves, releasing a pair of aces, taking command.
Djokovic clearly needed to assert himself unequivocally in the third game, but he was not up to the task. At 30-15 he served a double fault, and then he followed with his sixth unforced error of the set to put himself down 30-40. Promptly, Djokovic double faulted again to lose his serve for the second time. Federer had collected 12 of 17 points in racing to a 3-0, two service break lead. A highly anticipated encounter between the game’s No. 1 and No. 2 ranked players was turning into something strangely one-sided. Federer was now supremely confident. In the fourth game, he served consecutive aces for 30-0, a service winner out wide for 40-0, then another ace down the T to hold at love for 4-0. He was under no duress. Federer knew full well that this set would soon belong to him.
Djokovic remained unemotional and ill at ease. He went to 40-30 in the fifth game, but was flat-footed as Federer caught him off guard with a deep return down the middle. The Serbian flicked a backhand crosscourt wide. Then he served his fourth double fault. At break point down, Djokovic was rushed into a netted forehand by the pace and depth of Federer’s attacking forehand. It was 5-0 to the Swiss. Despite missing three out of six first serves in the sixth game, Federer held at 30 to wrap up a bizarre set in 20 minutes. Federer had won 25 of 35 points with cool precision, unrelenting aggression and impeccable court sense. But Djokovic did not do himself proud in any way. Gone was his usual pride and tenacity, his customary taste for the battle. It was hard to comprehend why he could not summon more inspiration for a final round occasion against one of his chief rivals on his favorite hard court surface.
And yet, Federer had played a remarkably efficient set, connecting with 73% of his first serves, winning 12 of 15 points on his delivery, and making only one unforced error—eight less than his out of sorts opponent. Fortunately for Djokovic, Federer lost a bit of his range off the ground early in the second set, and, in turn, the Serbian at last began driving the ball with more velocity, better depth and substantially more ball control from the backcourt. Djokovic finally got on the board, holding at 30 for 1-0 in the second set as Federer misfired with an inside-out forehand. Despite missing three out of six first serves, however, Federer held at 30 for 1-1 as Djokovic remained surprisingly vulnerable on his returns off both sides.
But Djokovic raised his intensity decidedly in the third game. On the first point, as if to send a message to Federer, he grunted loudly for the first time and won that point with a crackling inside-out forehand. He held on at 30 for 2-1 despite his fifth double fault of the match. Federer was unperturbed, holding at 15 with an ace for 2-2. Yet Djokovic was gradually gaining confidence and rhythm. He held at 15 for 3-2, making all five first serves in that game, hurting Federer time and again with the wide serve to the forehand. Federer knew the complexion of the match was changing, and recognized that Djokovic was improving considerably after his dismal start.
Federer held at 30 for 3-3, but Djokovic responded in kind, holding for 4-3 as Federer missed two backhand returns in a row from 30-30. For the first time in the match, Djokovic got a brief glimpse of daylight on Federer’s serve in the eighth game of that second set. The Swiss fell behind 15-30, but he swiftly took three points in a row to hold for 4-4 as the Djokovic ground game collapsed. At that stage, Djokovic had made 17 unforced errors while producing only three winners. But he played a fine game to reach 5-4, holding at 15, uncorking two winners off the forehand, keeping Federer largely at bay. Serving to save the set at 4-5, Federer was four for five on first serves, holding at 15 with an inside-out forehand winner set up by a trademark wide serve.
Djokovic played far and away his best tennis of the contest in the eleventh game, cracking four outright winners (three off the forehand) and holding at 15 with a confident backhand down the line into the clear. Federer retaliated ably. Despite a double fault for 15-15, he held at 15 for 6-6. On they went to a tie-break after a far more absorbing set. Both players had conceded only nine points in six tidy service games. A tie-break was surely the fitting way to end the set. With Djokovic serving the first point in that critical sequence, Federer made a delayed approach to the net, delicately deposited a backhand half volley drop shot to draw the Serbian in, and then put away an overhead into the open court.
Federer thus had the quick mini-break, and he surged to 3-0. But Federer missed a pair of sliced backhands to close the gap to 3-2. Federer anxiously pulled a forehand wide for 3-3, and then Djokovic passed Federer cleanly off the forehand. The Serbian had swept four points in a row to establish his own mini-break lead, but then made a damaging error. Serving at 4-3, he took Federer’s routine chipped return down the middle and drove a forehand well beyond the baseline—a glaring unforced error at the worst possible time. Although Federer revealed his own apprehension on the next point with a complete miss-hit off the backhand, Djokovic had lost the chance to build on his lead.
From 4-5, Federer unleashed an ace out wide and a service winner down the T for 6-5, moving to match point in the process. But Djokovic was bold and purposeful when he had to be, using a penetrating inside-out forehand to set up another forehand that he blasted deep to the Federer forehand. On the dead run, Federer’s “squash shot” landed long. Djokovic then peppered the Federer backhand to provoke an error off that side. Now the Serbian was at set point, but he did not exploit his opening. Federer astutely came forward and played a solid low forehand volley down the line. Djokovic had good options for either a down the line or, better yet, a crosscourt passing shot off his stronger side. But instead he went for a topspin lob that had no depth. Federer easily put away the overhead for 7-7, and never looked back. His wide slice serve in the deuce court set up a forehand winner behind Djokovic for 8-7, and then a deep service return set up another forehand winner. The tense tie-break went to Federer, 9-7, and with it the title.
Djokovic had nearly found a way into a final set against Federer after his inauspicious beginning. It would have been fascinating to see what might have transpired in a third set. But Djokovic had provided a cushion for Federer by offering so little opposition at the outset, and Federer had just enough confidence to hold on when things got dangerously tight late in the second set. He deserved the victory more than Djokovic, who suffered a fourth final round defeat in seven 2012 final round appearances.
Federer has now secured no fewer than six tournament wins for the 2012 season. The last year he won that many championships was back in 2007, when he captured eight. Most impressive about his triumph in Cincinnati was his outstanding serving. He was not broken once in 47 service games all week, a considerable feat. To not lose his serve against Djokovic—the sport’s finest returner—was extraordinary. Federer had been wise to skip Toronto the week before after reaching the final of the Olympic Games. The rest was highly beneficial. On top of that, he had a very favorable draw, opening up against Alex Bogomolov, Jr., playing Bernard Tomic next. He was tested by Mardy Fish in the quarters. The American overcame an uneven first set and was there toe to toe with Federer all through the second.
That set went to a tie-break, and the thin difference was Fish’s backhand down the line unforced error on the sixth point. Trying to go behind Federer, Fish missed to go down 4-2. Federer prevailed 6-3, 7-6 (4). In the semifinals, Federer handled countryman Stan Wawrinka 7-6 (4), 6-3. Only once has Federer lost to his Davis Cup teammate across their careers. That confrontation is essentially over before they walk on the court, although Wawrinka acquitted himself reasonably well on this occasion. At 4-5, he saved a set point on his serve and held on. At 5-6, he rallied from 0-40, saving four more set points in that game to reach the tie-break.
But, as was the case with Fish in his match with Federer, Wawrinka injured himself irreparably with a backhand unforced error that gave Federer a 4-2 tie-break lead. Federer prevailed 7-6 (4), 6-3 to take his place comfortably in the final. He had good preparation for Djokovic after his skirmishes with Fish and Wawrinka. Moreover, he was rested after a relatively easy week.
As for Djokovic, perhaps he had reached the end of his emotional rope after competing for the fourth Sunday in a row. He had been bruised by losing to Andy Murray in the semifinals of the Olympics and then falling in the bronze medal match against Juan Martin Del Potro. From London, he went straight to Toronto, and admirably defended his Rogers Cup crown in Canada. It is never a facile feat to capture the Canada and Cincinnati titles back to back. It requires winning ten matches over a twelve or thirteen day stretch. Since the events were placed in successive weeks on the ATP World Tour calendar in 1990, only Andre Agassi (1995), Patrick Rafter (1998) and Andy Roddick (2003) have realized that difficult feat. Djokovic came very close by reaching the final, but he was surprisingly flat when he took on Federer.
Why was it so surprising? The answer is straightforward. He had endured only one long match in the two tournaments combined, going three tough sets with Tommy Haas in the quarters of Toronto. In Cincinnati, Djokovic had a somewhat taxing battle with Andreas Seppi in the second round, winning 7-6 (4), 6-2. But then he spent a mere half hour on the court against Nikolay Davydenko, winning the first set 6-0 before the Russian retired curiously with an alleged shoulder injury. That seemed like a feeble excuse from Davydenko for not completing that match, even if his shoulder was such a burden.
In any case, Djokovic then took apart Marin Cilic 6-3, 6-2, and struck down Del Potro by the identical score-line in the semifinals. To be sure, Del Potro pushed him much harder than the score would indicate. At 1-1 in the opening set, the Argentine had four break points but Djokovic was magnificent in that corner, saving himself with a backhand winner drilled audaciously down the line, a spectacular running forehand that was unanswerable, and some steadfast defense. On the last of those break points, Djokovic prevailed in a 30 stroke rally. He took that set 6-3. Ahead 3-2 in the second set, Djokovic saved two more break points, winning a 22 stroke exchange and sending out a heavy kicker to the backhand that Del Potro could not handle.
Djokovic glided to victory from there. Del Potro was bothered by an ailing left wrist which surely affected him on his two-handed backhand whenever the ball got up high. He played some stupendous tennis in that match. Yet he could not contain a determined and purposeful Djokovic in the end.
In the final analysis, Federer seemed to want to win the final more than Djokovic. He was primed for the occasion, and now he has toppled the Serbian two times in a row after losing their first pair of clashes in 2012. The win will undoubtedly carry Federer into the U.S. Open with zest and a growing sense that he can capture the crown in New York for the sixth time. But, despite the setback in Cincinnati, Djokovic will be eager to defend his title in New York. Meanwhile, Murray—despite a lackluster performance in a loss to Jeremy Chardy in Cincinnati—will still be riding high after his Olympic gold triumph.
The three way race at the U.S. Open will be as compelling as it gets.
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.