Fortnights at the majors are always compelling for those who assiduously follow the game of tennis. In these two week festivals, history of a high order is made, landmark triumphs recorded, hearts often broken, and the careers of those who play the sport for a living sweepingly altered by the chain of events at these Grand Slam tournaments. The sport’s towering players direct everything they do toward making an impact at the four majors, knowing that these showcase stages will make or break them forever, realizing that reputations are established and enlarged when big and timely victories are recorded, wanting to make certain that no stone is left unturned in pursuit of their highest and widest ambitions.
Never mind that Novak Djokovic recently secured his fifth Australian Open and eighth Grand Slam championships. Forget about the fact that the Serbian is the world’s top ranked player, and seems almost certain to conclude the 2015 season as the sport’s preeminent performer for the fourth time in a stirring five year span. Leave aside the inarguable fact that day in and day out there is no one better than Djokovic in tennis today. There can be no doubt that this man often leaves nearly all of his rivals in a state of befuddlement, confused about what they can do to hinder his backcourt rhythm, discouraged about how to expose any vulnerabilities in a competitor who has remarkably few chinks in his armor.
Make no mistake about it: across the board, Djokovic is unbending, insatiably ambitious, ready to confront anyone no matter what the setting or surface. But while Djokovic is very comfortable wearing the No. 1 label on his lapel, the fact remains that for the past year or so he has been burdened more by one leading player than any other. Roger Federer just toppled Djokovic 6-3, 7-5 to win the Dubai Duty Free Tennis Championships. In capturing that ATP World Tour 500 crown for the seventh time, Federer also ousted Djokovic for the fourth time in their last six meetings since the start of 2014, and the second time in a row. The world No. 2 raised his career head to head record to 20-17 against Djokovic, and the ineradicable Swiss Maestro claimed an 84th career ATP World Tour crown in the process.
That the 33-year-old Federer could be this successful against a rival six years his junior is an extraordinary achievement. There are, of course, some logical reasons why the Swiss has done so well against his longtime opponent in this recent stretch. It is a comfortable matchup for Federer. He seems to read Djokovic’s patterns intuitively from the backcourt, and enjoys the pace of the rallies and the flat ball hitting from the Serbian. This is not to say that Federer automatically controls the destiny of these contests, but he it is a far cry from competing against Rafael Nadal. The left-handed Spaniard puts Federer into perpetual misery with his lethal brand of heavy topspin off the forehand, forcing the Swiss to hit shoulder high backhands almost incessantly. Moreover, Nadal keeps sending his slice serve wide to the Federer backhand in both the deuce and ad courts, and that strategy has been enormously successful.
The matchup with Nadal is nightmarish for Federer, but he much prefers the pattern of play when he faces Djokovic. On this latest occasion in Dubai, Federer gave one of the great clutch serving performances of his career in a best of three set final. Not once was he broken in two scintillating sets. Federer was thrice down 15-40 in the match. Altogether, he erased all seven break points he faced in four different service games against the man many of us consider the finest return of serve practitioner of all time. That was a phenomenal feat. It was uncanny how much poise, precision and majesty Federer displayed under pressure on his serve in his straight set triumph over Djokovic.
In the opening set, Djokovic seemed ready to draw first blood. With Federer serving at 1-1, Djokovic surged to 15-40. Federer missed his first serve, but his second serve was released with depth and bite. Djokovic could not get sufficient pace or depth on his return. Federer instinctively went on the attack, putting away an overhead emphatically. At 30-40, Federer went wide to the Djokovic backhand with a well located first serve, drawing an errant return from the Serbian. Federer held on gamely after three deuces despite missing seven of twelve first serves in that game.
At 3-3, Djokovic had another small opening. At 40-30 in that seventh game, Federer tried a surprise serve-and-volley combination behind a second serve kicker, but the tactic thoroughly backfired. Djokovic routinely made a backhand return winner down the line. But Federer held on from deuce commandingly. He was ahead 4-3, and Djokovic was no longer unflinching. Serving in the eighth game, he made a forehand unforced error at 15-0 and then double faulted. Although he served an ace out wide for 30-30, Djokovic was unsettled. Federer’s searing return set up a forehand winner down the line. Now down break point, Djokovic faltered once more. Federer released a sliced backhand return crosscourt, and Djokovic did not handle it well. He drove a routine backhand crosscourt long. That disconcerting game cost Djokovic the set. Federer served for the set at 5-3, opening with an ace out wide in the deuce court, producing two more unreturnable serves on his way to 40-15, and then holding at 30 to seal the set 6-3 with yet another unstoppable delivery down the T.
Federer had outplayed Djokovic when it really counted over the second half of the high caliber first set. But Djokovic remained dedicated to his task. Both men were steadfast on serve through the first six games of the second set as the level of play soared on each side of the net. Djokovic swept 12 of 15 points on his delivery while Federer took 12 of 17 service points in that stretch. The tennis was first class all the way. Serving at 3-3, Djokovic was under duress. Federer used a couple of backhand slices to lure Djokovic into a false sense of security. The Swiss then drove a topspin backhand down the line for a dazzling winner. On the next point, he went one better, stepping up the pace for an even more spectacular down the line backhand winner.
It was 0-30. But Djokovic was calm, resolute and maybe even fatalistic. Federer miss-hit a backhand on the next point and then decidedly miscued on another backhand down the line winner attempt, driving that shot way beyond the baseline. Djokovic missed only one of six first serves in that game and held on at 30 for 4-3. In the following game, Djokovic cast caution aside. A deep return set up a forehand inside in winner to give the Serbian a 15-40 lead on the Federer serve. But Federer met that moment stupendously, acing Djokovic down the T in the deuce court for 30-40, producing a tough first serve down the T that drew a return error, releasing a service winner out wide to the forehand, and then acing Djokovic wide in the ad court. Four crucial swings of the racket. Not a return was made by Djokovic. An unwavering and spirited Federer was back to 4-4.
Now Djokovic held at 15 for 5-4, and again Federer fell into a serious bind. Djokovic sent a forehand passing shot winner up the line off a swing volley from Federer. A terrific return from Djokovic led to a wild forehand miss from Federer. It was 0-30. Federer was fortunate to avoid a 0-40 predicament as Djokovic netted a backhand passing shot with a nice opening, but Djokovic connected with a forehand winner crosscourt to reach 15-40. Federer missed his first serve on this critical point, but his second serve was bold, directed deep to the forehand. Federer worked his way up to the net. Djokovic kept his passing shot low, and Federer had to play a difficult forehand volley down the line. The shot appeared to be heading long, but it clipped the baseline and left Djokovic helpless. Federer had saved one set point with both good fortune and sound execution. At 30-40, Federer served down the T in the ad court again, eliciting a netted forehand return from Djokovic. The Swiss had erased a second set point. An ace out wide gave Federer game point, and another ace out wide in the ad court lifted Federer back from a precipice to 5-5. In successive service games, he had fought honorably from 15-40 down, hardly allowing Djokovic room to breathe, extricating himself with excellence when the chips were down.
Yet Djokovic rolled into a 40-0 lead at 5-5. He seemed certain to at least reach a second set tie-break. But two backhand unforced errors followed by an inside out forehand unprovoked mistake knotted the score at deuce. Djokovic double faulted to fall behind break point, and an entirely opportunistic Federer then made an excellent return that led to an inside out forehand winner. Startlingly, Federer had manufactured a break from 40-0 down by collecting five points in a row, and so he served for the match in the twelfth game of a fascinating and often sublime second set. Federer commenced that game with an errant forehand drop shot wide, and then Djokovic went to 0-30. Federer rallied to 30-30 with a service winner and an ace down the T.
A solid serve-volley combination lifted a highly charged Federer to 40-30 and his first match point. Federer was surely thrown off by an overly excited fan yelling out after he made a first serve down the T. Djokovic got the return back in play, and a distracted Federer missed off the forehand. He then double faulted for the first time in the match, allowing Djokovic one last break point opportunity. Djokovic hoisted a magnificent lob off the backhand, forcing Federer to retreat and play a safe yet unexceptional overhead down the line. Djokovic had a good read on a backhand down the line but sent it into the net with Federer having gone back to the baseline. An ace out wide gave Federer his second match point, which he sealed with an authoritative forehand winner into the clear.
On the seven break points he faced across the two compelling sets, Federer put in five first serves. He was unshakable and unbreakable. He connected with 65% of his first serves and won 80% of those points, and yet he took only 11 of 28 second serve points (39%). In his 19 previous triumphs over Djokovic, Federer had always exceeded 40% on second serve points won, and to survive on this occasion with less than 40% in that category was abundant proof that Federer came through largely on his big point mastery.
It was a very important win for him in many ways. Federer secured a second title of 2015 in the three tournaments he has contested. He beat the world’s best player in an essentially neutral setting, although the speedy hard courts in Dubai gave the Swiss a slight advantage in terms of the match tempo. Be that as it may, the battle was fought so skillfully on both sides of the net that it augers well for the next couple of years in a rivalry that has been overshadowed in this era by Nadal-Federer and Djokovic-Nadal.
Those rivalries have featured many more showdowns of lasting consequences. Of the 33 contests between Nadal and Federer, no fewer than eight have been settled in the finals of Grand Slam events. The Spaniard has won 6 of their 8 duels in Grand Slam tournament finals and nine of their eleven meetings altogether at the majors. Nadal holds an overwhelming 23-10 lead, but the luster of their series is substantially enhanced by the amount of history they have made. Imagine the same two men meeting in three consecutive French Open and Wimbledon finals from 2006-2008. That is history of a high order.
Nadal and Djokovic have met in an Open Era men’s record number of matches, playing 42 times altogether. The Spaniard has been victorious in 23 of those collisions. Moreover, they have clashed on seven major final round occasions, with Nadal the victor in four of those showdowns. These two gladiators have done battle in the finals of all four majors. They have also waged baseline wars five other times in pre-final appointments at Grand Slam events.
Other much heralded rivalries among the men in the Open Era include Ivan Lendl versus John McEnroe. They dueled 36 times from 1980 to 1992, with Lendl the victor in 21 of the meetings. That featured two U.S. Open and one French Open final round showdowns; Lendl won two of the three skirmishes. The series between Lendl and Jimmy Connors also played out over a long span from 1979 to 1992. Lendl bested Connors in 22 of 35 clashes, but Connors overcame Lendl in back to back U.S. Open finals (1982-83). Boris Becker and Stefan Edberg took each other on 35 times between 1984 and 1996, and Becker was the winner on 25 occasions. They underlined their greatness with three consecutive Wimbledon finals against each other from 1988-90; Edberg surpassed the German in two of the three.
Who could forget the 1989-2002 All-American series between Pete Sampras and Andre Agassi? They fought it out in five major finals on three of the four premier stages, and Sampras won all but one of those encounters. Altogether, Sampras won 20 of 34 meetings with Agassi. Finally, the all lefty Connors-McEnroe series and the Bjorn Borg-McEnroe rivalry must be examined. McEnroe stopped Connors in 20 of 34 meetings overall between 1977 and 1991; they split two Wimbledon finals in the eighties and McEnroe toppled Connors in a pair of epic U.S.Open semifinals (1980 and 1984). Borg and McEnroe celebrated their glorious rivalry over a brief, four year span (1978-81) and finished at 7-7 against each other. Remarkably, four of those 14 contests were played in major finals at Wimbledon and the U.S. Open in 1980 and 1981. McEnroe prevailed in three of the four skirmishes.
So how do we evaluate the Federer-Djokovic rivalry? Their 37 meetings are second only to Nadal-Djokovic (42) for most confrontations in the men’s Open Era. They have given us more than their share of exhilarating moments across the years, splitting 12 career finals and going 6-6 in their 12 skirmishes at the majors, colliding in Grand Slam tournament finals seven years apart (with Federer winning in the U.S. Open final of 2007 and Djokovic prevailing in the Wimbledon final of 2014), and coming up against each other five years in a row at the U.S. Open (2007-2011). In consecutive semifinal confrontations at the U.S. Open, Djokovic astoundingly saved two match points on each occasion to halt the Swiss in 2010 and 2011, taking both of those contests in five sets.
Federer was regularly the superior player in the rivalry’s first five years (2006-2010). In that period, he won 13 of 19 matches over Djokovic. By the end of 2013, Djokovic had made substantial inroads and had closed the gap in the career series to 16-15 for the Swiss. But by capturing four of the last six duels, Federer has widened the gap to 20-17. And yet, beyond the numbers, the tennis played by these two men against each other can be singularly alluring. Federer is among the greatest servers the game has ever seen, while Djokovic has that incomparable return. Djokovic is a masterful defender and an exemplary percentage ball striker with probably the best backhand in tennis today; Federer’s forehand might well be the best in history.
No wonder they play so many first rate matches against each other. From here on in, it will be riveting to watch them in combat. Federer seems to have a knack for playing many of these matches on his terms, keeping the points relatively short, serving his way out of jeopardy, stepping into the court whenever possible to apply pressure on Djokovic. On his better days, Djokovic looks to move Federer from corner to corner, opening up the court, using his backhand down the line to go behind his adversary, making Federer play an inordinate number of shots on the run; when Djokovic can turn his tussles with Federer predominantly into tests of speed and endurance from the baseline, the Serbian is always better off.
Federer seems to have no need to make adjustments when confronting Djokovic, but the Serbian may need to draw up a different gameplan. Federer has excellent options at his disposal because he is willing to approach the net more often than any of Djokovic’s leading rivals, and the greater frequency of his attacking keeps Djokovic off balance and ill at ease. Federer also has considerably more variety from the backcourt than anyone else who crosses Djokovic’s path.
Djokovic would do well to look at tapes with his coach Becker to better gauge Federer’s serving patterns. In Dubai, Federer hurt Djokovic considerably with the wide serve in the deuce court and the first serve down the T in the ad court. It seems to me that Djokovic needs to take that ad court T serve away from Federer more frequently, or at least anticipate it better. On too many big points, Djokovic could not read Federer’s serve in both the deuce and ad courts.
These two formidable figures will surely meet at least three more times this year. Djokovic needs to make his move swiftly and find a way to wrestle control of the matches away from the determined and versatile Federer, to prolong some points and take charge of others with increased aggression. Djokovic needs to take the initiative away from Federer as often as possible, but that is much easier said than done. Federer will remain daunting for Djokovic all over the circuit in best of three set clashes, but he will be hard pressed to defeat the Serbian in any of the majors when best of five set matches are held. Djokovic has the opportunity to turn his duels with the Swiss Maestro at the majors into endurance tests, and that can work to the Serbian’s distinct advantage.
I eagerly anticipate their upcoming battles. They are two extraordinary tennis champions, giving the game everything they have, pushing themselves to the hilt, looking to impose themselves unhesitatingly and forthrightly. It has been intriguing to witness the shifts in the psychology of the rivalry over the years. In that period from late 2010 to the end of 2012, Djokovic seemed to be ever present inside the psyche and head of Federer. Those back to back comebacks from double match point down by Djokovic in the 2010 and 2011 Open semifinals in New York were evidence of Federer’s fragility against this key rival for a time. At the end of 2012, they faced each other again in the finals of the Barclays ATP World Tour Finals. Djokovic did another semi-Houdini act in that one.
Having won a tight opening set, Djokovic was behind 5-4, 40-15, double set point in the second but he broke Federer right then and there, stole the set with ingenuity and an entirely positive outlook, and completed a 7-6 (6), 7-5 triumph. In those years, Djokovic was unafraid of Federer and he relished the opportunity to shine against Federer under the harsh yet bright light of pressure. Now Djokovic seems to have lost much of his swagger against Federer, while the Swiss exudes quiet yet unmistakable confidence against the Serbian. There has clearly been a role reversal of sorts. Even in the two victories he recorded over Federer last year, Djokovic was pushed right down to the wire in the finals of Indian Wells before coming through in a final set tie-break, and he took the Wimbledon final in five tumultuous sets. The last time Djokovic upended Federer in straight sets was in that season-ending Barclays ATP World Tour Finals title round match at the end of 2012.
The stage is set for some captivating matches between these two supreme ball strikers over the next couple of seasons. Novak Djokovic is the pace setter in his sport, but the fact remains that Roger Federer has been revitalized for a long while now and this inimitable individual is 33 going on 28. To be sure, Djokovic will be challenged severely by others, including an ever determined Nadal, the gifted Kei Nishikori, and Stan Wawrinka on isolated afternoons. But the fact remains that his most formidable rival right now is none other than Roger Federer.
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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The 2007 French Open Doubles Champion reported from London during his quest for back to back slams.
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