It was hardly the titanic tussle we craved, but the much-hyped Australian Open semi-final between Novak Djokovic and Roger Federer had images that will always endure. Ultimately, that’s all that really matters.
Right now, Djokovic vs Federer is tennis’ best rivalry, despite being predominantly one-sided and a predictable affair, because of the grandiose connotations associated with the match-up. You feel a tilt of legacy and the shaping of history every time these two greats play.
For so long, it was much the same when Rafael Nadal played either of these two, but the Spaniard is unfortunately dilapidated, like a car once its hit 200,000 km, meaning some of the lustre has now eroded from those iconic rivalries he was part of.
What makes tennis such a compelling and fascinating sport are the elite match-ups. Seeing all-timers pitted against each other, amid the swirl of expectation and pressure is something special, fuelled on this occasion by not knowing how much more we’ll see of this great rivalry due to Federer’s advancing age.
We should never take it for granted. Surreal, startling and, ultimately, sublime things happen in these matches – so memorable that they forever resonate.
You might as well discard whatever happens in previous rounds; this was another prime example of that. Federer had cruised to the final four with trademark effortlessness, while Djokovic had looked sluggish suggesting the semi-final match-up may be a tight contest.
But Djokovic has an aura, a sheen of invincibility about him, much like Federer in the mid-2000s and Nadal had at various stages earlier this decade. Even Federer, for all his overwhelming success throughout the years, knew Djokovic’s spectre hovered ominously.
Federer, probably rightly, feels like he has to do something different to rattle Djokovic. In this instance, he decided to receive first after winning the toss. For a cricket comparison, it was like when Nassser Hussain infamously decided to bowl to open the 2002-03 Ashes at the Gabba.
As long-time Federer adversary Lleyton Hewitt noted on commentary, it was a bizarre move by Federer which hinted at conservatism initially. But it reinforced Federer’s desperate attempts at trying something different in a bid to change the match-up’s dynamics which had so overwhelmingly favoured Djokovic in recent years.
However, it backfired spectacularly and Djokovic – who gains an extra step when he’s the frontrunner - quickly gained the initiative to take a stranglehold of proceedings.
It was jarring seeing Federer, generally regarded as the greatest ever men’s player, look so ashen-faced. Perhaps Nadal made him feel similarly hopeless once upon a time at Roland Garros, yet Federer’s pummelling during the opening two sets was nevertheless astonishing.
Humiliatingly, Federer only won a measly three games over the first two sets - his worst start to a Grand Slam match since 2001 back when he was just another precocious youngster with a forgettable hairstyle. It was a savage beatdown by Djokovic, who by year’s end – if he can conjure a similar season to his near-invincible 2015 – might legitimately challenge Federer’s universal “greatest ever” mantle.
The Serbian was like a tennis robot in his unparalleled ability to retrieve almost every ball and hit shots with unnerving accuracy. Federer mixed things up in a desperate bid to halt the momentum, but Djokovic had entered the rarified realm of near perfection.
We knew the baton had been exchanged a long time ago, but it felt reminisce of when a prime Kobe Bryant torched a 40-year-old Michael Jordan for 55 points in an NBA game in 2003. Everyone knew Kobe was better at that juncture of their careers, but it was right there and then that you knew the league had forever been altered.
Something similar seemed to be unfolding before our eyes. But somehow, perhaps through a gentle nudge from the tennis gods yielding to the pleas from an exasperated crowd, Federer tapped into his magical bag of tricks during a surprising comeback in the third set.
Even at his age, against an all-timer at his zenith, Federer was able to revive memories of his heady days of the mid-2000s. It is so easy to be besotted by his serene style, but an underrated aspect of Federer’s legendary career has been his resolve. Perhaps it doesn’t manifest so obviously like Djokovic and Nadal, but Federer is a fighter; his relentlessness is the fulcrum of his game.
Inevitably, Djokovic regained his composure and the initiative to snuff out Federer’s comeback and win the match in four sets – the kind of result most wise pundits had predicted pre-match. It is evident that Federer can’t flick the switch anymore, not against Djokovic anyway; conversely the world number one can summon his best when he absolutely needs to.
Federer is probably 80 percent of the player he was in his prime of 2004-09, which of course is still good enough to beat the majority of players on tour. His post-prime, and ability to contend at tennis’ geriatric age of 34, is astounding. Truth be told, his best right now just can’t beat Djokovic. Not over five sets anyway. It’s hard to see where number 18 is coming with Djokovic likely to keep hoarding slams.
But who really cares about semantics. What ultimately matters, particularly in these epic rivalries, are indelible moments being added to the treasure trove of memories.
There was a stretch during the third and fourth set where the standard lifted to the irresistible levels we all yearned. It hit a crescendo when Federer magically hit a backhand winner down the line midway through the fourth during a rally he seemingly appeared likely to lose. Even Djokovic looked bewildered.
The crowd went ballistic.
The incredible sequence was a snapshot of the very best moments of a rivalry that has been such a beloved staple over the last decade.
Perhaps we can be overly nostalgic with sports at times, but on this occasion, the prevailing sentimentality for this great rivalry was beautiful to behold.