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Steve Flink: Another Serious Test for Djokovic

1/25/2011 2:00:00 PM

by Steve Flink

Once more, in the concluding stages of a Grand Slam event, with so much at stake for all of the game’s leading players, Novak Djokovic stands right in the thick of things. The often confounding but always compelling Serbian has reached the penultimate round in Melbourne. The 23-year-old gave a sterling performance in clipping Tomas Berdych 6-1, 7-6 (5), 6-1 in the quarterfinals, losing his serve only once, returning serve with verve and alacrity, controlling points with precision and depth off the ground. Djokovic was pushed much harder than the score would suggest. In the opening set, he got the crucial break for 3-1, but only after four deuces on Berdych’s serve. He closed that game with a trademark forehand passing shot winner crosscourt, held easily for 4-1, then broke in another deuce game for 5-1.

Djokovic served out the opening set commandingly at 15, but Berdych went to work assiduously in the second set, holding from 15-40 down in the opening game. That boosted Berdych’s confidence, and he swiftly found his range, particularly off the forehand side, which had been such a liability until then. A crackling inside-out forehand winner gave Berdych triple break point for 3-1, and two points later the big man got the break as he caught Djokovic off guard with a solid return of serve. Berdych soared to 4-1, acing Djokovic at 40-15 with a wide slice serve in the deuce court.

The Serbian was getting into his frantic state, talking to himself, glancing over uncomfortably toward his supporters at courtside, wearing the look of a worried man. That did not last. But Djokovic regained his composure rapidly, collecting three games in a row with purposefulness and discipline. The standout moment during this stretch was a dazzling forehand topspin lob winner down the line that gave him break point in the seventh game. From 4-4, both men held into the tie-break. In that suspenseful sequence, Djokovic released an ace for a 5-2 lead before Berdych answered with consecutive aces of his own. With Djokovic serving at 5-4, Berdych cracked a forehand passing shot winner cleanly.

Yet Djokovic refused to lose his cool. At 5-5, he prevailed in a tense 16 stroke exchange from the baseline as Berdych missed a forehand down the line wide off the net cord. On the next point, there was a 17 stroke exchange, but Djokovic was too solid. Berdych went for a backhand down the line with no real opening, and drove it wide. Djokovic had the set, and never looked back, sweeping the last five games from 1-1 in the third. It was a first rate performance from the No. 3 ranked player in the world, and it should carry him into his semifinal contest against Roger Federer with at least cautious optimism. Djokovic has lost only one set in five matches. He is fresh and fit. And there can be no doubt that he loves playing in the evening, because extreme heat has long been his fiercest enemy.

The circumstances for the Federer-Djokovic meeting could hardly be more enticing. Djokovic, after all, toppled Federer in the semifinals of the most recent Grand Slam event more than four months ago, escaping from double match point down at 4-5 in the fifth set. He has seldom if ever performed that admirably under pressure. On the first match point against him, he sent Federer scurrying all over the court and then moved forward and went for a dangerous inside-out forehand swing volley winner. Djokovic pulled it off beautifully. On the second match point for Federer, Djokovic went for broke again. After Federer rolled a topspin backhand reasonably deep—without too much on it—down the middle, Djokovic ran around his backhand and drilled a forehand boldly into Federer’s vacant forehand corner. It was another outright winner. On went Djokovic to a well deserved 5-7, 6-1, 5-7, 6-2, 7-5 triumph. But, of course, he lost the final to Rafael Nadal in four high quality sets.

That was the first time Djokovic had reached a Grand Slam tournament final since he won his only major back at the 2008 Australian Open. But it was definitely a step in the right direction, and no one was going to beat Nadal in that tournament. The Spaniard has never been more dedicated to coming through at a Grand Slam event, and he was single-minded in pursuit of realizing that goal. Never before had he captured the U.S. Open, and he played the best hard court tennis of his career to get it done. And yet, it must have been a difficult pill for Djokovic to swallow. He surely believed when he won in Melbourne three years ago that he was going to add more Grand Slam championships to his collection. He was only 21 then, a player of growing stature, a competitor who knew he was still far away from the peak of his powers.

But the time since has been frustrating in many ways for this enigmatic individual. He had already finished 2007 at No. 3 in the world, and he has remained right there in year-end rankings for 2008, 2009 and 2010. That is no mean feat, and his reliability overall and capacity to keep winning tons of matches year in and year out is remarkable. Yet here is how he has done in the majors. After he recorded his uplififting victory at the 2008 Australian Open, he lost to Nadal in the semifinals at Roland Garros, fell surprisingly in the second round of Wimbledon against a revitalized Marat Safin, and then bowed against Federer in the semifinals of the U.S. Open.

On to 2009, and a campaign that was largely disappointing. He retired early in the fourth set after trailing two sets to one against Andy Roddick in the quarters of the Australian Open, lost in the third round of Roland Garros tamely to Philipp Kohlschreiber and then fell against Tommy Haas in the quarterfinals of Wimbledon. He closed his Grand Slam season with a semifinal defeat at the U.S. Open against Federer. But he improved at the majors in 2010. After he lost to Jo-Wilfried Tsonga in the quarters of the Australian Open, he let a two set lead get away from him against Jurgen Melzer in the quarters of Roland Garros, bowing in five sets. At Wimbledon, he advanced to the semifinals but ran into a razor sharp Berdych. And then he had his fine run to the U.S. Open final.

Clearly, Djokovic has been creating all kinds of opportunities for himself at the majors. His record at the game’s showcase tournaments has been awfully good, but not good enough for a player of his standards. There have been reasons for his struggles. In 2009 and well into last year, he altered his service motion, and his elbow bend and classic back scratching motion disappeared. Gradually, over the course of 2010, he went back to his old and better serve, and now he it looks as fluid as ever. No longer is that issue weighing on his mind. The fluidity and ease with which he is serving has allowed Djokovic to dictate off the ground more convincingly than he has for a long while.

But he will face a daunting task in seeking to oust Federer for the second straight time at a major. To be sure, Djokovic has managed to beat Federer in two hard court semifinals at the Grand Slam events, both in Melbourne three years ago and in New York last year. The fact remains that Federer has beaten Djokovic four other times in “Big Four” events, with three of those victories occurring at the U.S. Open. Yet the courts in New York are decidedly faster than the hard courts of Melbourne. And Djokovic will not mind confronting Federer in the cooler night air. In those conditions, the Serbian will have more opportunities to put his extraordinary defensive skills fully on display, and he should return well on a slower court. So Djokovic does have some advantages when he takes on Federer this time around in Melbourne.

Conversely, Federer has no reason not to be confident. He is surely determined to end a streak of three straight majors when he did not make it to a final. The Swiss fell to Robin Soderling at the French Open last year in the quarters, then lost to Berdych on the lawns of Wimbledon in the quarters before he came up narrowly short against Djokovic in New York. Since that time, Federer has been on a roll. After the Open, he won Stockholm, Basle and the season-ending Barclays ATP World Tour Finals in London. His only defeats in that span were a final round setback against Andy Murray in Shanghai, and a semifinal appointment with Gael Monfils indoors in Paris, when the Frenchman saved five match points for his first win over his renowned adversary.

Federer promptly opened his 2011 season by winning the tournament in Doha. So he has won four of his last six tournaments. Not insignificantly, he has beaten Djokovic three times at the cost of only one set since their U.S. Open duel, including an emphatic straight set victory in their most recent clash indoors at London. Altogether, Federer has a 13-6 career edge over Djokovic. The view here is that this meeting in Melbourne will be much like their U.S. Open showdown. Federer had a rough stretch in the middle of the tournament, nearly allowing a two set lead against Gilles Simon to evaporate in the second round before prevailing in five, playing uninspired tennis against Xavier Malisse and Tommy Robredo. In his quarterfinal against countryman Stanislas Wawrinka, Federer was much sharper and he swept to a 6-1, 6-3, 6-3 win. But Wawrinka made it relatively easy for Federer and he gave a less than stellar competitive effort. To be brutally frank, it was a desultory performance from Wawrinka, while Federer was thoroughly professional.

Djokovic will have no alternative but to raise his game about 7% if he wants to strike down his mighty opponent. The outcome will be determined largely by the quality of Djokovic’s return of serve, by his ability to prevent Federer from chipping-and-charging on second serve returns from the deuce court, and by his capacity to stop Federer from running around his backhand in the Ad court to crack telling forehand returns off second serves. Beyond that, Djokovic must keep his high intensity under control; he simply can’t afford to get back into that frantic state of mind. Djokovic must match Federer’s mental toughness, and that will be an arduous task for him.

No matter what happens, it should be a terrific match. The guess here is that Federer wins in five, but as I said at the outset, Novak Djokovic is a confounding character. It would not shock me if he elevates his game to fit the occasion, reaches back with all of his resources, and carves out what would be one of his most important triumphs.

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