When Novak Djokovic plays Roger Federer on the southern reaches of the Thames on Sunday night for the 44th time in one of sport’s great rivalries, he will be driven by an urge to prove he is not only the best player in the world this week but the best of his era.
So clinical and complete was his mastery of Rafael Nadal here that his loss to Federer earlier in the week seems in retrospect to have done no more than ignite the strange, irresistible power that resides deep in his Serbian soul.
We will have a truer indication of the contemporary difference between them when they meet in the final of the 2015 Barclays ATP World Tour Finals – their career head-to-head stands at 22-21 for the Swiss – but surrendering his winning streak at 23 in that round-robin match clearly did not devastate Djokovic, who enters every match now, whatever the surface and including this decider, as a nailed-on favourite.
Federer is a six-times winner who has beaten Djokovic three times this year and stands in the way of his grab at a fourth end-of-year title on the spin. The Swiss is a sporting marvel at 34 and might be the greatest of all time.
But the man who is five years his junior, seven slam titles adrift of his tally of 17, surely deserves to be acclaimed as the king of his era.
As Djokovic put it later: “When he’s on, it’s hard to play him. I think he also likes playing me because he has a variety in his game with the slice, he comes to the net, takes away the time from me. We always play matches with a lot of tension. There is a lot at stake.”
Federer said courtside after beating his compatriot Stan Wawrinka almost as easily in the evening as Djokovic had dismissed Nadal in the afternoon: “He’s had a tremendous year. It was a great win over Rafa today. I’m sure I’m going to leave it all out on the court here. I thought I did a nice job, didn’t mess up too many volleys [glorious Federer understatement: he won 24 of 32 visits to the net]. It was important not to back off when you miss a few.”
A willingness to gamble intelligently was the defining feature of not only this game but his whole season, and Wawrinka, more content sticking to what he knows, did not have the diversity in his game to respond. It is what has separated them for years.
Wawrinka had a look at 15-30 on Federer’s serve in the fifth game, and seized the chance to break, then held for 4-2 after a quarter of an hour.
It looked good for Switzerland’s second best player, but he handed the break back with a lazy backhand for 4-4. Federer punished him for his slackness, broke again and served out the set after 36 minutes.
In the second set, Wawrinka collapsed in the face of Federer’s excellence – as he did against Nadal earlier in the week – clinging on rather than competing, as the Spaniard did against Djokovic. Wawrinka at least broke Federer once. The 7-5, 6-3 win detained Federer just a dazzling hour and 10 minutes – nine minutes quicker than Djokovic spent over dismissing Nadal 6-3, 6-3.
Djokovic was supreme in every phase of the game in grinding down the long-ago world’s best, Nadal, and what we have in prospect is a delicious contrast of styles: the revived serve-volley game of Federer against the driving, relentless, all-court dominance of Djokovic.
Djokovic’s serving was sublime: 90% at first attempt. He had more penetration on his second serve, 60%, 11 from 18, than Nadal did on his first, 54%, 20 from 37. He served one double fault and did not face a break point, 24 winners and 21 unforced errors – and won 58 points overall to Nadal’s 41. Those are not statistics, they are the tale of a rout.
“I don’t feel unbeatable,” Djokovic said, “but it does definitely feel great when I’m playing the way I played today. When I feel like I’m dictating the pace the match itself, most of the rallies, I feel like on top of my opponent.”
The 46th contest between Djokovic and Nadal finally saw the Spaniard’s slight edge overhauled, but the world No1 has been advancing on him inexorably in blocks of two major assaults for four years. There was the 6-0 devastation of 2011 (followed by that epic Australian Open final in January 2012) then the steady attritional dismantling of the rivalry since Beijing two years ago, during which time Djokovic has won seven of their eight matches, including the final of this tournament in 2013.
Djokovic will be buoyed by the fact that Federer’s wins over him this year have come in three-setters. He still bested him at Wimbledon and in New York. “In terms of highlights of the year,” he said, “I would say those were the Wimbledon and US Open finals. Winning those two grand slams against the best player in history was something that stands out as the achievement of the year.”
There are ways of damning with faint praise, and Djokovic knows most of them. For all the sugary words of the combatants, the final will be super-charged with passion from start to finish.
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