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Steve Flink: Djokovic reaffirms his status as the game’s greatest player

11/13/2012 2:00:00 PM

by Steve Flink

When Novak Djokovic and Roger Federer collided in the final of the Barclays ATP World Tour Finals at London’s 02 arena, the two best players in the world fully understood what was at stake. They were playing for the last prestigious prize of the season, fighting for the champion’s share of 1500 South African Airways ATP ranking points, trying to conclude 2012 triumphantly, and looking to move toward 2013 with optimism and conviction. Federer was chasing a seventh victory at this elite event that is reserved for only the eight greatest players in the world, while Djokovic was in full pursuit of a second crown. For Federer, victory would signify beyond dispute that no one is better indoors; for Djokovic, winning in London would essentially underline his status as the best tennis player in the world for the second year in a row.

But, perhaps above all else, this meeting between the Serbian Stalwart and the Swiss Maestro was personal. It was largely about pride. Djokovic had prevailed in his first two skirmishes with Federer this year, recording straight set victories in the semifinals of both the Italian and French Opens on the clay. With those wins, Djokovic had lifted his career record against a premier rival to 12-14. He had captured six of their last seven contests going back to the beginning of 2011. But Federer had sharply retaliated with a four set victory over Djokovic on the hallowed lawns of Wimbledon in the semifinals, followed by a final round dismissal of his adversary on the hard courts of Cincinnati. As they approached their clash indoors in London, Federer was driven by the chance to oust Djokovic for the third consecutive time, while Djokovic knew he needed to find a way to reestablish his authority. This duel mattered greatly to both competitors.

In the end, Djokovic was a worthy victor, eclipsing Federer 7-6 (6), 7-5 in the best two set match I have seen all year. This was gripping stuff, a remarkably high quality encounter, an exhilarating contest that could just as easily have gone Federer’s way in straight sets. It was a tribute to Djokovic’s reservoir of competitiveness, his steely resolve, his capacity to raise his game prodigiously when it mattered. The Serbian’s uncanny instincts in precarious corners and his steadfastness under pressure were the twin motors of his successful yet complicated journey past Federer. Ultimately, it was not a matter of willpower that separated the combatants; Djokovic succeeded because he was the tougher big point player. Right now, there is no stauncher competitor in the game, not even the redoubtable Rafael Nadal.

Federer, however, was the man who came out of the gates with sweeping assurance and a dazzling mastery of his craft. When he last took on Djokovic in the championship match at Cincinnati, the Swiss had majestically taken the opening set 6-0, the first time a love set had occurred in the illustrious career series between these formidable rivals. The early stages of this Barclays ATP Tour World Tour Finals appointment were strikingly reminiscent of Cincinnati. Federer was blazing on all cylinders at the outset, swiftly building a 3-0 lead, sweeping 12 of 14 points in the process. He held at love in the opening game, releasing an ace down the T for 15-0 and serving another ace out wide for 40-0. He then broke Djokovic at love as the Serbian apprehensively commenced that second game with a double fault and later made a pair of unforced errors. Federer held at 30 for 3-0, closing out that game with a heavy kicking second serve out wide that set up a forehand winner to the open court. Federer was clearly revved up completely for the occasion, confident he could win a third title in a row on this court, inspired by an opportunity to collect his seventh singles title of 2012.

Yet Djokovic made his move in the fourth game. He began unleashing his ground strokes with an authority he had lacked until that juncture, and started picking away persistently at Federer’s backhand while going selectively to the renowned forehand wing of his opponent. Djokovic moved to 40-15, and finally held on for 1-3 after two deuces with a spectacular forehand down the line winner, brilliantly countering a thundering forehand crosscourt from Federer. That long game was pivotal, allowing Djokovic to get his bearings, enabling him to sink his teeth into the contest. Federer missed five of six first serves in the following game. The Swiss was, if anything, overeager. Meanwhile, his backhand was faltering. Thrice in that game he erred off that side. Djokovic peppered away at Federer’s backhand meticulously. He broke back for 2-3 and then held in a deuce game for 3-3.

The complexion of the match had been altered significantly. Federer did serve terrifically to reach 4-3, releasing two more aces in that game. Yet Djokovic was unruffled, holding at 30 for 4-4, finishing that game with an astounding forehand winner cross-court hit at an unimaginable angle. The ninth game lasted for 18 compelling points, through six deuces, across a spectrum of fascinating points. Federer had no fewer than four game points. He saved two break points. But when he was down break point for the third time, Federer was stymied by a first rate backhand return off a well-produced first serve. The Swiss stepped around his backhand for an inside-in forehand, but sent that critical shot aggressively into the net. Djokovic had achieved his second break of serve, and was serving for the set.

The Serbian went to 30-0 in the tenth game, narrowly missed a forehand down the line, and was then coaxed into a two-handed backhand mistake by Federer’s guile. Nevertheless, Djokovic advanced to 40-30, reaching set point. Once again, Federer found the right percentage tactics, outdueling Djokovic and forcing him into an error off the forehand. From deuce, Federer was the better man from the backcourt in two more rallies. Improbably, he broke back for 5-5. A resurgent Federer held at 15 for 6-5, producing two more aces. On the penultimate point of that game, Djokovic toppled to the ground in a bruising rally. At the changeover, he was treated by the trainer, who took care of the Serbian’s significant cut above the elbow. In the twelfth game, Djokovic trailed 0-30 but swept four consecutive points to make it to 6-6. He did not miss a first serve in that game, acing Federer to lock the score at 30-30, following up with a pair of service winners.

In the subsequent tie-break, the sequence was tied at 4-4. Djokovic picked away at Federer’s backhand and eventually Federer made an error off that side. Serving at 5-4, Federer probed the Djokovic forehand and drew an error, but Djokovic opened up the court and took control of the next rally to reach 6-5, moving to set point for the second time. Federer was serving, and this would be the point of the match. Federer approached the net on the Djokovic forehand, and the Serbian drove his passing shot crosscourt. Federer lunged to his right for an almost desperate forehand drop volley. Djokovic scampered forward and steered a forehand crosscourt. The ball was behind Federer, who retreated just behind the service line, wheeling around to play a difficult forehand. Somehow, he magically rolled that shot past Djokovic for a startling crosscourt winner. Federer was back to 6-6, and surely buoyed by that inspirational shot as he changed ends of the court.

And yet, inexplicably, Federer went for a low percentage backhand down the line winner on the next point, and missed it wide. Now Djokovic had garnered a third set point, and his second in the tie-break. He sent a first serve wide to the Federer backhand. The return came back predictably crosscourt, and Djokovic had time to run around his backhand, drilling an inside-out forehand into the clear for a clean winner. Djokovic had sealed the set in 71 captivating minutes, holding back a spirited Federer. Djokovic’s first set triumph was enormously important. He had beaten Federer four times across their careers after dropping the opening set, including two wins in the semifinals of the U.S. Open (2010 and 2011). But Federer had never rallied from a set down in any of his 16 triumphs over Djokovic. On eight occasions in their rivalry, Djokovic had been the winner of the first set, and he had never lost any of those confrontations.

Be that as it may, Federer refused to dwell on his first set misfortune. He fought with quiet ferocity to break Djokovic in the six deuce opening game of the second set. Djokovic had three game points and saved three break points before losing that game with an errant backhand down the line. Federer was revitalized. He held at 15 for 2-0 and soon moved to 3-1. In the fifth game, Federer reached break point, but Djokovic saved it with a stinging backhand down the line that lured Federer into a running forehand crosscourt error. Djokovic held on for 2-3 but Federer held at 15 for 4-2. Two games later, Federer was down break point, but he rose to that challenge commendably, acing Djokovic out wide in the ad court. The Swiss advanced to 5-3 before Djokovic held easily in the ninth game.

And so Federer was serving for the second set in the tenth game, and was poised to take the match into a third and final set. The 31-year-old went to 40-15, standing right where he wanted to be at double set point. He got his first serve in, but Djokovic’s return landed reasonably deep down the middle. Federer went for an aggressive inside-out forehand, but missed it. At 40-30, Djokovic took control of the point with another penetrating backhand down the line, forcing Federer to miss a running forehand into the net. A flustered Federer made a forehand unforced error at deuce, and Djokovic then played a strategically impeccable point, thumping a forehand into the corner from the middle of the court to draw a forehand down the line error from a harried Federer.

Djokovic had done it again, winning four points in a row to break back for 5-5, saving two set points in the process. Federer had made first serves on both set points, to absolutely no avail. Djokovic had elevated his game decidedly at a propitious moment, while Federer had drifted into deep uncertainty when the chips were on the line. The situation was strikingly reminiscent of Djokovic’s amazing recoveries against Federer in the 2010 and 2011 U.S. Open semifinals. In the former of those battles, Djokovic had saved two match points at 4-5 in the fifth set on his own serve and had gone on to win 7-5 in the final set. In the latter, Federer was serving at 5-3, 40-15, double match point in the final set but then lost 17 of 21 points and fell again 7-5 in the fifth. In many ways, history had repeated itself in London, much to Federer’s chagrin and Djokovic’s joy.

The second set in London was even at 5-5. Djokovic served an ace for 30-0 in the eleventh game before Federer took the next two points. Djokovic, however, came up with another clutch play at 30-30. On the stretch and off the court, he walloped a forehand crosscourt with extraordinary pace and depth. Federer understandably was rushed into a forehand down the line wide. At 40-30, Djokovic seized the initiative again, and Federer missed a forehand crosscourt under duress. Djokovic had held for 6-5, and now Federer was serving to stay in the match. The Swiss established a 30-15 lead, only to pull a forehand crosscourt wide. He had become increasingly vulnerable off that side. At 30-30, Djokovic’s depth was too much for Federer, who pulled a backhand crosscourt wide. Suddenly, Federer was down match point. He seemed in command, approaching the net behind an inside-out forehand. But Djokovic anticipated that play beautifully, wrapping up the victory with a scintillating backhand down the line passing shot for a clean winner.

Djokovic had carved out an admirable win under arduous circumstances, overcoming Federer indoors where the Swiss has been so dominant. He had won 96 points and Federer garnered 95. Both players had won 58% of their total service points and 42% of their return points. Djokovic had broken Federer four times, and had lost his own serve only three times. Another telling statistic: Djokovic made good on 69% of his first serves while Federer finished at 61%. But beyond the numbers, the Serbian succeeded because he found the range with his backhand down the line with increasing regularity to draw errors from Federer on the running forehand.

Moreover, Djokovic broke down Federer’s backhand pretty comprehensively with a mixture of flat and heavier topspin shots, taking the Swiss out of his rhythm. Most importantly, Djokovic had surpassed Federer with supreme mental toughness. Federer knows that Djokovic is not going to surrender tamely in close skirmishes. Interestingly, Federer played excellent percentage tennis when Djokovic was trying to serve out the first set, and his solid play worked and kept him alive. But when he was on the brink of capturing the second set, Federer seemed to become unnecessarily adventuresome, going for too much, trying to play audaciously rather than sensibly.

In the semifinals, Federer had averted a third straight loss against U.S. Open champion Andy Murray with a 7-6 (5), 6-2 victory. Murray had the upper hand decidedly in the early stages of the match. Pounding his returns with remarkable velocity, serving big, controlling the tempo of the rallies almost entirely, Murray broke Federer in the opening game, and established a 3-1, 0-30 lead. Murray had toppled Federer in three straight sets to win the gold medal at the Olympics and then had fashioned a straight set semifinal win over the Swiss in Shanghai. He seemed very capable of maintaining his edge on this occasion.

But Federer was determined to reclaim his authority. He raised his level of aggression and held on in the crucial fifth game of that first set. Yet Murray extended his lead to 4-2. Serving at 4-3, 30-30, Murray had a big opening for a backhand down the line passing shot but drove that shot long. Federer broke back for 4-4. They travelled to a tie-break, and Murray took a 3-1 lead, but Federer collected six of the next eight points to prevail 7-5 in that sequence. At 1-1 in the second set, Murray led 40-0 but carelessly lost his serve on a run of five straight points for Federer. Thereafter, Murray was listless, seemingly disinterested, devoid of spirit. Federer soared through the set comfortably, winning 16 of 18 points on serve, breaking Murray again for 5-2. Serving for the match in the eighth game, an unthreatened Federer toyed with the British standout, serving-and-volleying twice, gliding to victory.

To be sure, Federer was magnificent, and his exuberance in closing out the win was evidence of his ongoing commitment to playing at the highest levels of the game for some time to come. That was very admirable. But Murray’s desultory performance was distressing. He hardly competed in the second set against a crucial rival. Gone was his usual habit of chiding himself constantly, but instead he comported himself as if he hardly cared about the outcome after dropping the opening set. That was disappointing, as was his tactical rigidity. Murray was succeeding early by blasting Federer off the court, ripping his backhand crosscourt with all of his might, going for forehand winners, rocking the Swiss back on his heels. But once Federer adjusted, Murray never seemed to have a “Plan B”. He played into Federer’s hands. Federer got into a groove off his backhand as Murray kept slugging crosscourt backhands monotonously. It was inexplicable that a player of Murray’s diversified skills could fall into a pattern of predictability and not change it.

I always felt that Murray’s coach Ivan Lendl went to work in his heyday with a definite game plan in mind, but his weakness was not having a backup strategy when his original map of the match went wayward. Perhaps that is what happened to Murray this time around, but it was perplexing to me that he had no answer once Federer changed his game. Federer, for instance, started attacking Murray’s seconds serve in different ways, running around his backhand for aggressive forehand deuce court returns, also chipping and charging. But Murray never seemed willing to send a second serve out wide or into the body to keep Federer honest. Murray also fell into a trap with the crosscourt backhand, rarely attempting to go down the line off that side. That was inexplicable. Federer won deservedly, but he also wanted the victory much more than Murray. Why in the world was that the case?

In the other semifinal, Djokovic confronted a top of the line Juan Martin Del Potro in an absorbing clash that reflected well on both men. Del Potro had lost his opening match in the round robin against the wily David Ferrer, who picked the big man apart from the baseline and returned adeptly. But Del Potro recouped to rout Janko Tipsarevic in straight sets. With a 1-1 record, Del Potro needed to beat Federer in his last round robin match. Federer had already qualified by winning in straight sets over Tipsarevic and Ferrer, but Del Potro had recently ended a six match losing streak against Federer with a victory in the final of Basel indoors.

In this encounter at London, Del Potro erased three break points against him at 3-4 in the opening set, and then outplayed Federer in a tie-break. Federer broke Del Potro at the start of the second and made it back to one set all, but Del Potro turned the tables on Federer by breaking the Swiss for a 2-0 final set lead, converting his only break point when Federer miss-hit a topspin backhand long. Del Potro won that match 7-6 (3), 4-6, 6-3, happily recording a second straight win over the Swiss to claim his semifinal place in London, losing his serve only once in three sets. Despite his win over Del Potro and a 2-1 round robin record, Ferrer unluckily missed out on the semifinals because he ended up winning only 4 of 8 sets, while Federer was 5-2 in sets for his three matches and Del Potro was 5-3.

In any case, Del Potro was outstanding off the ground and on serve against Djokovic in the early stages. He broke Djokovic at 4-4 in the first set with some sparkling shot making, including a running forehand down the line passing shot winner for 15-30. Del Potro broke at 15 as the Serbian missed four out of five first serves. Serving for the set at 5-4, Del Potro held at love with an ace and a pair of winners off the ground. He broke Djokovic again to take a 2-1 second set lead, sealing that game by winning a bruising 33 stroke baseline exchange. Del Potro was up a set and a break. He was playing the same brand of tennis he had displayed in winning the 2009 U.S. Open and in reaching the Barclays ATP World Tour Championships final later that year.

But Djokovic responds to a crisis like no one else in the game. He broke back for 2-2 and held for 3-2 with ease. After Del Potro held for 3-3, Djokovic swept three straight games to reach one set all. In the final set, he was too solid and strategically agile for Del Potro. Djokovic came back fervently for a 4-6, 6-3, 6-2 victory. But Del Potro gave us every indication that he will be a big force in the 2013 men’s game. He could well be on his way back to the top five in the world.

Perhaps the most intriguing match of the week was the round robin struggle between Djokovic and Murray, who were meeting for the seventh time across 2012. They had split the previous six matches, with Djokovic having saved five match points in their previous appointment in the semifinals of Shanghai. Murray served brilliantly in the opening set. He broke Djokovic in the first game of the match by virtue of winning a hard fought, 22 stroke rally. In five service games over the course of that set, Murray won 20 of 23 points and was virtually unstoppable. He took the set 6-4.

Djokovic struck back boldly in the second set. At 2-3, Murray served-and-volleyed at break point down but the strategy backfired. Djokovic made a fine return. Murray missed his first volley. The Serbian moved to 4-2, took the set 6-3, and established a 4-2 final set lead. Djokovic had a break point for 5-2 but surprisingly missed a backhand return off a second serve. Murray escaped, and found a late match surge, establishing a 5-4 lead on a run of three consecutive games. Djokovic served to save the match in the tenth game and trailed 15-30, standing two dangerous points from a three set defeat. Djokovic caught Murray off guard with a backhand down the line drop shot, and Murray missed a forehand down the line. Djokovic held on from there, broke Murray in the following game, and served for the match at 6-5.

Yet Murray nearly took the contest into a final set tie-break. He reached 15-40 on Djokovic’s serve, but the world No. 1 responded mightily, putting away and overhead emphatically, releasing consecutive service winners, and then out rallying Murray at match point. Djokovic bested Murray 4-6, 6-3, 7-5 to close the year with a 4-3 winning head to head record over one of his chief rivals. That victory was the crucial moment in the week for Djokovic. In many ways it propelled him to the title. Although Murray lost that showdown with Djokovic, he still qualified for the semifinals because he stopped both Tomas Berdych and Jo-Wilfried Tsonga, who did not win a match.

Djokovic won the tournament without losing a match, which was no mean feat. He captured his sixth title of 2012. Although this season could not measure up to the lofty standards he set in securing ten titles and three Grand Slam championships in 2011, the fact remains that Djokovic still won another Grand Slam title in 2012 and was the only man to appear in three Grand Slam singles finals. He finished the year with a flourish, winning three tournaments down the stretch after losing a ferociously fought five set final to Murray at the U.S. Open.

Novak Djokovic was unequivocally the best player in the world again in 2012, and the most fearless competitor as well. His triumph at the Barclays ATP World Tour Finals will leave him in good stead as he rests briefly before turning his attention toward winning a third straight Australian Open crown in January. At 25, Djokovic is at the height of his considerable powers. He is a man with a clear and realistic understanding of who he is, where he is going, and what he can still accomplish. The view here is that Djokovic is going to have another banner year in 2013.