It was late into Thursday night, and there was no shortage of ghosts at the O2 Arena in London — or in the tennis world at large. Every time the score went to 40-15, whether on Roger Federer’s serve or Novak Djokovic’s (15-40 in that case), a wave of tension seemed to radiate from the court. Would the memory of that Wimbledon final cause Federer to crumble? Would he give up the advantage from a winning position again, leading to another bucketload of scars?
It’s easy to say that Djokovic, presumably because of his mentally draining match against Dominic Thiem two days ago, wasn’t quite in the same headspace as he was at Wimbledon. He wasn’t focused enough to latch on to every half-chance that came his way, nor clean enough with his groundstrokes to keep putting pressure on the Swiss.
But just as significant, if not more, was the fact that this wasn’t the run-of-the-mill version of Federer. This was the version that was touched by the divine.
“I played incredibly, and I knew I had to because that’s what Novak does and I was able to produce. So it was definitely magical,” Federer said after the match. ‘Magical’ may be an overused term in sports, but on this day it was an accurate description of what went down. Maybe Federer should have thrown in the word ‘flawless’ too while he was at it.
Right from the outset, the Swiss was on point with every single aspect of his game. Playing the kind of fast and furious tennis that he has come to be known for, Federer handcuffed Djokovic with his pace of shots and razor-sharp accuracy. And those 40-15 points? They were barely a problem because he always had his serve to lock them down.
It wasn’t just a good serving day for Federer; it was a supernatural one. He got 73% of his first serves in, dropping just seven of 36 points (81% success) on them. The second serve numbers were even better: he didn’t drop a single second serve point in the first set and won 69% of them overall.
Federer served harder and closer to the lines in the match than he usually does, and the effect of that was palpable. Literally every time he needed a point on his serve, he got it with a big ace. After a while, his serve started looking so bulletproof that we wondered whether he had been possessed by a demon.
But Federer’s serve has always been better than Djokovic’s; what was even more striking was that he outdid the Serb on the return too.
Djokovic got an impressive 74% of first serves in himself and repeatedly targeted the Federer forehand with it. The Swiss, however, was always prepared, getting as many as 81% of his first-serve returns back into the court (as opposed to 36% by Djokovic). And many of those returns landed within a foot or two of the baseline, which meant that Djokovic got very few free points; it was no surprise that the Serb managed to win just 57% of his first-serve points.
The final piece of the puzzle was the precision off the ground. In almost all of their recent matches, Djokovic has been clearly superior with his consistency from the baseline, forcing Federer into errors by getting one extra ball into play. So what did Federer do? He simply refused to miss that extra ball.
In a stat that is likely going to be repeated in hushed tones for years to come, the Swiss made a grand total of five unforced errors in the entire match. That’s right: a measly five errors, despite playing his usual high-risk brand of tennis. In the first set, things were even more unreal: Federer made one unforced error, against 12 winners. Numbers like those are not supposed to exist.
This wasn’t just a Federer in full flight, a term that has come to be associated with his very best tennis. This was a Federer who had willed himself into becoming something that he was not, something that traversed the entire gamut of tennisdom to do the one thing that was considered impossible.
Federer hadn’t defeated Djokovic since 2015, losing the last five matches of their rivalry in a variety of different ways. Many believed he had gone past the age where he could actually put the Serb away, and looking at Federer’s game from a theoretical perspective, it was hard to disagree with that.
Federer isn’t quick enough to withstand Djokvoic’s heavy-hitting from the baseline anymore, nor is he consistent enough to keep Djokovic pinned behind the baseline. Attacking the net with abandon (a la Shanghai 2014) always seemed like his best bet, but even that was bound to be touch-and-go given Djokovic’s love for reactive passing shots.
So Federer decided to flip the script, and do the only thing that was guaranteed to beat Djokovic: take the racquet out of his hands altogether. By bombing his serve into the corners Federer never allowed Djokovic to get his famed return into play. And by hitting his groundstrokes with pinpoint accuracy he never let the Serb’s defence become a factor.
The only time Federer seemed in even a hint of trouble was when Djokovic started blasting his own forehand with venom at the start of the second set. But the 20-time Grand Slam champion saw off the threat by sticking to his guns and returning the favour.
The ethereal quality of Federer’s performance may make it seem like a one-off, but by his own admission, there was a design behind it. “There is a lot that goes into a match like this. I spoke at length to the team before, probably over an hour about all the different possibilities, about what can happen.” In other words, Federer was fully prepared to do whatever it took to finally conquer his nemesis.
The result means that Federer has qualified for the semifinals (along with Thiem), while Djokovic has been eliminated at the group stage for the first time since 2011. It also means that the Serb has lost the race for the year-end No 1 ranking; Rafael Nadal has now sealed the spot, for his 5th career finish at the top of the pile. Each of the Big 3 now has five year-end World No 1 finishes, which is appropriate in many ways.
“I’m sure Rafa was watching too, and from that standpoint, it was a magical night for me here at the O2, no doubt,” Federer said, throwing the ‘Fedal’ shippers into a tizzy. But the Swiss was likely just being diplomatic, as he has a lot more to gain himself from the deposition of Djokovic.
The Serb has held the No 1 ranking for 275 weeks in total, just 35 shy of Federer’s 310. If he had got it back this week he’d have likely held it for a few months more, thus seriously threatening the Swiss’ all-time record. It’s funny how things work out when you play tennis from another dimension, isn’t it?
At the start of the week, none of us thought that would be possible for Federer this year in London. When he lost tamely to Thiem in his first match, it seemed likely that his semifinal-or-better streak at the season-ending championships (dating back to 2008) was finally going to be snapped. But just like he did at Wimbledon – where he dropped a set to Lloyd Harris in his first match – the Swiss got better with each match, to the point that he eventually started looking invincible.
That’s been a pattern for Federer in most of his events lately, and the biggest indication yet that his strong post-35 results are no accident. Age is not ‘just a number’ for Federer; it is something to be managed with patience and poise, even if it means taking your lumps every once in a while. And who can argue against this approach when he can produce five-error performances even at the age of 38, against the greatest defender of our times?
The ghosts of Wimbledon 2019 haven’t been banished yet; a round-robin win at the ATP Finals, even if a virtual knockout, is nothing compared to a Slam final. But the fact that the Swiss took the first steps towards the exorcism in such spectacular fashion deserves its own special place in the Book of Federer, which is already filled with many such miracles.
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Updated Date: Nov 15, 2019 15:23:06 IST