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Steve Flink: Djokovic wins a final he could not afford to lose

3/17/2014 5:00:00 PM

We tend to forget that the greatest tennis players in the game are only human beings. They fall into familiar patterns, just like the rest of us. When they are on a roll, they seem to win almost automatically, salvaging victories even if they find themselves on the edge of almost inevitable defeats, coming through at crucial times despite seemingly insurmountable odds against them. They are fundamentally creatures of habit, riding waves of confidence, creating opportunities when none appear to be on the horizon.

And yet, they can also drift into the opposite end of the competitive spectrum. When they are suffering through losing patches, that also often becomes a pattern, and it can be difficult to break. Consider Novak Djokovic, who has come to understand the nature of his mood swinging business as well as anyone. Djokovic fell upon some hard times in 2013 after taking his third Australian Open in a row to open that campaign. He lost back-to-back major finals at Wimbledon and the U.S. Open, endured an arduous seven tournament losing streak, and experienced a number of heartbreaking setbacks.

Nevertheless, he closed the 2014 season spectacularly, capturing four tournaments in a row, winning 24 consecutive matches to end the year on the edge of invincibility. But Djokovic did not commence 2014 anything like the way he would have wanted. In the quarterfinals of the Australian Open, he was upended in five tumultuous sets by Stan Wawrinka, the eventual champion. His 25 match winning streak at that event came to a conclusion. In his next tournament at Dubai, Djokovic was ousted in the semifinals by a determined Federer.

Djokovic had beaten Federer the last three times that they had collided, but in his Dubai loss to the Swiss Maestro he fell into disarray while Federer flourished. Djokovic was serving with a 6-3, 2-3 lead, but dropped nine of the last twelve games. Remember that Djokovic has been the sport’s premier front runner of modern times; his career match record after winning the first set coming into the contest with Wawrinka in Melbourne was 472-21, which made losing back-to-back tournaments from a set to the good all the more jarring. As Djokovic made his way into the final of the BNP Paribas Open at Indian Wells, his insecurities remained strikingly evident.

Federer, meanwhile, was still riding high. Dubai was his first tournament triumph since Halle last June, and that was the only event he captured in all of 2013. Now, here he was in California, within striking distance of a fifth crown at the Masters 1000 championship, one match away from a second straight 2014 title run. By the time the revitalized Federer took the court to confront Djokovic in the Indian Wells final, he had won eleven matches in a row, and his self-conviction was soaring. Moreover, just by reaching the final he had guaranteed himself an upward move from No. 8 back to No. 5 in the world; a victory over the Serbian would have taken Federer all the way to No. 4.

As for the world No. 2 Djokovic, the rankings were not his prime consideration. He realized he could make inroads on world No. 1 Rafael Nadal, the defending champion who fell in the third round. But what mattered much more to Djokovic was jumpstarting his season, claiming his first title of the year, renewing his faith in himself as a competitor who could thrive again under pressure. He simply could not afford another loss in an important tournament against a rival as crucial and formidable as Federer; he knew full well that this could be a match with lasting implications, and a contest that just might make or break his year in many ways.

The early signs, however, were not promising for Djokovic, not in the least. Federer came out of the gates swinging freely, lacing the ball impeccably off both sides, serving magnificently. The 32-year-old seemed entirely sure of himself, and his attitude was fully reflected in his play. But Djokovic put himself in an immediate and unnecessary bind, advertising his discomfort. Serving in the second game of the match—after Federer held at 30 to start the proceedings—Djokovic was abysmal. He had three game points to hold for 1-1, but wasted them all, double faulting twice, and misfiring once off the forehand. After three deuces, a persistent Federer got the break as the disjointed Djokovic was rushed into a backhand error. Just like that, Federer had been gifted a break by an adversary who was clearly uncomfortable.

Brimming beneath an air of certainty, flowing in every way, Federer was unstoppable in that opening set. In five service games, he conceded only seven points. He did not face a break point. Meanwhile, he handled every potentially explosive situation with cool authority and immense poise. For example, at 4-2, 30-15, he double faulted, but promptly aced Djokovic out wide in the deuce court for 40-30 and then served with pinpoint accuracy down the T to force a return error from the Serbian on the stretch. Thus he stretched his lead to 5-2. That was indicative of his play across the entire first set: solid, aggressive, purposeful, and unflinching. He connected with 74% of his first serves. Djokovic played decently after his inexplicably poor opening service game, but never had a chance against a Federer who played perhaps his best set of the young 2014 season and one of his finest sets in a good long while.

Djokovic may have been discouraged, but he kept plodding on, waiting for an opening. He held at 30 for 1-0 the second set, concluding that game with a service winner wide to the Federer backhand in the Ad court. Federer had his toughest service game of the match. He was pushed to deuce, but Djokovic missed a pair of aggressive backhands he would normally keep in play, narrowly sending a two-handed return wide as Federer travelled to 1-1. And yet, Djokovic was now backing up his serve with much deeper and more penetrating ground strokes, and his first serve was coming through for him. He did not miss a first serve as he held at 15 for 2-1, and then tested Federer again in the following game. Federer trailed 15-30. The two players had a terrific rally and Djokovic seemed in reasonably good shape until he overanxiously drove a backhand down the line into the net. Federer held at 30 for 2-2, but plainly the shape of the battle was changing.

Djokovic opened the fifth game with a double fault, but swept four points in a row from there with growing assurance. Once more, he gave himself a look at a possible service break, reaching 30-30 in the sixth game. Federer simply wasn’t ceding any ground. On that 30-30 point, he served down the T to set up a trademark inside out forehand winner. Djokovic attacked his way to deuce, putting away an easy overhead, but Federer followed with a 126 MPH service winner to the backhand and a nifty forehand inside out winner. It was 3-3.

Djokovic was serving into the sun in the seventh game, and Federer stretched him to deuce. The Serbian missed his first serve but produced a gutsy second serve, slicing that delivery to the forehand to provoke a down the line return error from the Swiss. Then an excellent first serve from Djokovic set up a forehand winner to the open court. He had forged ahead 4-3, and was ready to make his move. Now it was Federer’s turn to serve into the sun. At 15-30, Djokovic unleashed an extraordinarily deep return that Federer could only flick back weakly. Djokovic stepped in for a forehand inside out winner. It was 15-40 in the critical eighth game of the second set. Federer cancelled the first break point with an unstoppable first serve to the backhand, but the next point was pivotal.

Federer approached on the Djokovic forehand, and the Serbian threw up a high defensive lob, sending that shot deep down the middle. Federer retreated, and had to play his overhead on the bounce. He sliced it crosscourt with good depth, but Djokovic sent a forehand with good depth down the line, giving himself plenty of margin for error. Federer ran around his backhand and went for the inside in forehand off that high ball, but missed that difficult shot wide. Djokovic had the break for 5-3, but was soon behind 0-30 in the ninth game. Federer netted a running forehand, then netted a forehand inside in that seemed within his range. At 30-30, Djokovic released a service winner out wide that Federer barely touched. The Swiss missed again on the next point. Set to Djokovic, 6-3.

Clearly, Djokovic had an awful lot of momentum on his side in the early stages of the third set, and he made the most of it. He pressed Federer throughout the first game of that final set after the Swiss led 40-15. There were four deuces in that game. Djokovic had one break point, but Federer erased it emphatically with a forehand winner set up by a wide serve to the backhand. Both men performed remarkably in that game, and for Federer it was a clutch hold. After Djokovic held from deuce for 1-1—putting eight consecutive first serves in—he went to work with vigor. Serving into the sun, Federer double faulted into the net for 30-40, but boldly sent a forehand inside out winner into the clear to save the break point. Djokovic garnered a second break point, but Federer answered that bell with an ace out wide in the Ad court.

The stakes had been raised astonishingly high on both sides of the net as both players fought valiantly to win this critical game. Some outstanding defense from Djokovic coaxed a forehand inside out error from Federer, giving Djokovic a third break point. This one he sealed, driving his return deep down the middle, provoking a forehand error from the Swiss. For the first time in the match, Djokovic was in the lead, moving to 2-1 behind that service break. Djokovic consolidated the break and advanced to 3-1, but Federer was not terribly deflated. He held at love with four consecutive first serves for 2-3 before Djokovic replicated that feat to hold for 4-2, serving an ace down the T at 40-0.

The tennis remained scintillating. Federer held at 15 for 3-4, and then reached 15-30 in the eighth game on a Djokovic double fault. Federer slightly misgauged a backhand slice crosscourt, missing it wide. Djokovic took the next point and then moved to 5-3, chasing down a short angled backhand volley from Federer and passing his adversary cleanly, down the line off the backhand. Djokovic seemed very confident after holding serve for the 12th time in a row. He had the edge from the backcourt, and he had turned the encounter into an increasingly physical battle, making Federer work inordinately hard, moving his opponent methodically from side to side. Djokovic seemed poised to get the victory.

But Federer had very different notions. He was ready to make one last push. The Swiss held at love for 4-5. When Djokovic served for the match in the tenth game, Federer was determined to get every return back, and buoyed by an animated California crowd that was almost entirely in his corner. On the first point, he drew Djokovic in with a short chip, and the Serbian did not get down low enough for that awkward ball, slicing a backhand approach well over the baseline. At 0-15, Djokovic was confounded by a sneaky and brilliant shot from Federer, who looked as if he might play a forehand drop shot but instead chipped his approach down the middle. Djokovic missed his passing shot badly. It was 0-30.

Djokovic went for a backhand down the line but left that shot too near the middle of the court, allowing Federer to lace a forehand crosscourt for an outright winner. It was triple break point for Federer. Djokovic saved one, but then Djokovic made an unforced error off the forehand. Federer had played the percentages to the hilt, and was rewarded for his effort. Djokovic, meanwhile, had given away far too much, harming himself by waiting for errors rather than taking matters more into his own hands. It was 5-5, and Federer’s adrenaline rush was almost palpable. He held at love for 6-5. The 17 time major singles champion had won not only 3 consecutive games from the brink of defeat, but in the process he had collected 12 of 13 points.

Having served for the match and failed, Djokovic now served to stay in it at 5-6. On the first point of that game, he demonstrated his admirable temerity, producing a superb second serve to the forehand, catching Federer off guard. The Swiss drove his down the line return long. Djokovic surged to 40-0, lost the next point, then held at 15 for 6-6 with an ace down the T. That spirited stand brought Djokovic into the final set tie-break in a good frame of mind, and prevented Federer from completing a startling comeback down the stretch.

On the first point of the tie-break, Federer missed his first serve, and lost that point when he drove a crosscourt backhand long. Djokovic had the quick mini-break, and he made it 2-0 with an overhead winner. Federer chipped-and-charged off the second serve on the third point, but Djokovic got some extra pace on his backhand passing shot, forcing Federer to punch a backhand volley long. The Serbian had a 3-0 lead. Federer took the next point, but missed a forehand crosscourt on the following point as Djokovic made him cover too much court. It was 4-1 for the world No. 2.

Once again, Federer’s forehand let him down, as he missed again off that side. Djokovic had a commanding 5-1 lead. He then apprehensively drove a forehand long for 5-2, but Federer missed a routine inside out forehand himself to put Djokovic ahead 6-2. Federer managed to fend off one match point with an ace before driving a routine topspin backhand into the net. Djokovic prevailed 3-6, 6-3, 7-6 (3) for a triumph that may well prove to be among the most significant he will record all year long. A second straight defeat against Federer would have deeply wounded his pride, and the long term implications over the course of the 2014 season and perhaps beyond could have been substantial. Djokovic won primarily because he stopped giving Federer openings to approach the net after the first set, turning this into essentially a baseline duel. He played the match more and more on his terms. He was marginally better at the basics than Federer, and that made a big difference in the end.

The Djokovic-Federer rivalry has been very compelling. Federer now leads 17-16 in the series that commenced in 2006. At one stage, however, the Swiss led 13-6 over the Serbian. Djokovic has won ten of their last 14 meetings. In my view, this was the best match they have ever played against each other outside of the Grand Slam events. The standard was unmistakably high from beginning to end. For a set-and-a-half, Federer was too good. Then Djokovic seemed to have control of the contest before Federer came at him furiously and nearly pulled off a stupendous comeback. But, in the end, Djokovic found a way to reignite himself, reach back into his vast resources, and hold on for the win over a top of the line Federer.

Under similar circumstances at the 2010 and 2011 U.S. Opens in the semifinals, Federer had not been able to recover after the tide had turned against him. In 2010, he had two match points with Djokovic serving at 4-5, 15-40 in the fifth set, but once the Serbian wiped those match points away with clean winners, Federer was never the same and Djokovic swept to victory 7-5 in the fifth set. In 2011, Federer was serving at 5-3, 40-15, double match point when Djokovic made his famous scorching forehand return winner crosscourt. Djokovic saved the next match point and Federer was shell-shocked. Djokovic won 17 of the last 21 points and took that match 7-5 in the fifth set as well. In both cases, Federer faded once he failed to close out the matches, but this time around at Indian Wells, Djokovic reclaimed his authority and summoned the strength to get the job done despite a frenzied crowd thirsting for a Federer victory.

It had been a difficult week for Djokovic. He performed indifferently in a second round win over Victor Hanescu, who should have won the first set. Djokovic won that skirmish 7-6 (1), 6-2. He dropped the middle set to Alejandro Gonzalez in the third round, and lost the first set to Marin Cilic in the round of 16 6-1 before recouping. He easily dismissed Julien Benneteau in the quarters, and then confronted John Isner, who had upended the Serbian twice in exceedingly close matches over the last couple of years. In the 2012 Indian Wells semifinals, Isner had toppled Djokovic in a final set tie-break, and in the quarterfinals of Cincinnati last summer the American upended the Serbian 7-5 in the final set.

This time around, Djokovic rallied gamely against the towering American in the opening set. Djokovic rescued himself from 4-5, 0-40, triple set point down in the opening set. At 15-40, Isner drilled a forehand second serve return down the line impeccably, coming forward sensibly behind that shot. Somehow Djokovic kept a backhand down the line low to catch Isner on his heels and induce an errant forehand. Djokovic took the first set 7-5 and twice served for the match in the second, at 5-4 and 6-5. He opened the tenth game by nervously driving a forehand wide. Isner went on the attack in that game but Djokovic was entirely too passive. He missed three of five first serves and was broken at 15. At 6-5, Djokovic double faulted on the first point and was eventually broken at love, a victim again of his own timidity and Isner’s go for broke aggression. With Isner somewhat compromised by an injury above his knee, Djokovic settled down and won 7-5, 6-7 (2), 6-1. But Isner had a terrific tournament. By reaching the penultimate round with a double tie-break victory over the surging Ernests Gulbis, Isner is back among the top ten in the world.

The other standout among the men at Indian Wells was the mercurial Alexandr Dolgopolov, the gifted yet unpredictable shot maker from the Ukraine. Dolgopolov turned the tournament upside down in the third round when he achieved his first victory over defending champion Rafael Nadal. Nadal had narrowly escaped in the second round from a set down against Radek Stepanek (2-6, 6-4, 7-5). He had explained after that match that his lingering back injury remained an issue. He said that he had not hit any serves for ten days after his final round victory over Dolgopolov on February 23 in Rio de Janeiro. He had hoped that the Stepanek match would give him the confidence to serve and play the way he likes, with full conviction and all out intensity, without inhibitions.

That was not the case. In the opening set against a daring yet uneven Dolgopolov, Nadal was twice up a break but still did not prevail. Nadal losing his serve three times in a set is a rare occurrence. He got back to one set all without playing particularly well, picking apart Dolgopolov with an inordinate number of looping shots off both sides. All through this contest, Nadal was not driving through and flattening out his normally lethal and trustworthy inside out forehand, and he was pushing his backhand for the most part. Dolgopolov proceeded to play some spectacular tennis in the third set, opening up a 5-2 lead. From 2-2, he took three consecutive games and 12 of 16 points with audacious and often breathtaking shot making.

Nadal rallied to 5-5, taking three games in a row and 12 of 14 points. On they went to a tie-break. Nadal was uncharacteristically tight throughout the sequence, and yet he led 4-2. But he hit two balls in a row short, and Dolgopolov stepped in and demolished the second off the forehand to make it 4-3 for the Spaniard. Dolgopolov has a tricky serve with a quick action and a low toss that he leaps into. Two unstoppable first serves gave him a 5-4 lead before Nadal made it 5-5. Then the Spaniard served wide to the forehand and got a short return, only to drive a forehand crosscourt long; that is a shot he misses once in a blue moon. Dolgopolov finished it off deservedly 6-3, 3-6, 7-6 (5), and then took apart Fernando Fognini and toppled Milos Raonic, who had played an inspired match to beat Andy Murray. But Dolgopolov was easy prey for Federer, self-destructing after losing his serve at 3-4 in the first set. He would win only one more game against a disciplined and cagey Federer, who served beautifully in the wind.

As it stands now, Nadal is still scheduled to compete in Miami beginning this weekend. But he needs to be careful. The Spaniard missed Miami a year ago and has no ranking points to protect. Surely he would like to win that prestigious tournament for the first time. But the long clay court season is not far ahead of him, and Nadal wants to be sure his back is not an issue when he steps onto the dirt. That is a crucial time of the year as he looks to dominate as usual on his favorite surface. He hopes to win a ninth French Open in June, but he has to make certain the back is not a nagging problem during that stretch of the season. If that means pulling out of Miami or withdrawing before it is over to protect his back, so be it.

Meanwhile, Djokovic will be the favorite in Miami after winning the first Masters 1000 hard court event of the season. He needed the Indian Wells crown probably even more than he realized. As for Federer, he gave a great performance in defeat, and he will be hard to beat again in Miami, a title he claimed back in 2005 and 2006. For the time being at least, his back is not acting up, and the Swiss is moving with astonishing alacrity. He is also striking the ball much better than he has in a long time off both sides, and serving much more like the old Federer. His agility and execution at the net is also markedly improved. The tennis he is playing these days is the best he has unveiled since probably 2009.

For Djokovic, Nadal and Federer, the next six months are going to be fascinating. If you are tired of watching this commendable trio, then you must be tired of life.
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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.