This piece was originally published by The Express Tribune.
The dysfunctional air-conditioner in my dorm TV lounge accentuated the Sharjah heat as I uncomfortably shifted on the leather couch, watching Roger Federer play Juan Martin Del Potro in the 2009 US Open final. It was past midnight and having to wake up early for a mandatory early class, I was in the mood for a quick resolution to the match in favour of the Swiss.
Thankfully, Federer swooped through the first set 6-3 and went up a break in the second. The game was as breezy as the reclaimed air of regality that seemed to have permanently deserted him in the earlier part of the year. And in the process of exhibiting his ethereal brand of tennis, punctuated by swift sprints to retrieve hard hit backhands with deftly sliced backhands, precision serving, and sweetly-timed forehands, Federer was making his six feet, six inches opponent look increasingly mediocre.
This was going to be Federer’s sixth US Open triumph in as many years. It was the return of the king, who only four months earlier was being written off, having his kingdom effectively dismantled by Rafael Nadal. But with Nadal rendered virtually irrelevant through burnout, injury and consequent loss of form, Federer was once again in to the ascendency, capturing the Roland Garros and Wimbledon – the same tournaments where Nadal had given him heartburn the year before. Without Nadal’s nasty lefty spin, muscular defence, and indefatigable spirit, the players on the rest of the tour were guests in Federer’s funhouse.
And then it all fell apart.
After the outcome had seemed like a foregone conclusion, the fissures appeared. Initially, it was Federer’s inability to secure an insurance break in the second set, which would have signalled me to dash to my room and curl up in my blanket, comforted by the knowledge that Federer would win. Then, with Federer serving for the set and being 30-15 up, Del Potro hammered a cross-court forehand pass. And then another. Suddenly, we had a match on our hands. Federer teased me again by coming within two points of winning the match in the fourth set, but he wasn’t to win his sixth US Open that year. Nor in any subsequent year despite often coming into the tournament in ominous form.
Twice, it was Novak Djokovic who brought his run at Flushing Meadows to a halt. Both times, Federer held two match-points but was unable to detach Djokovic from serendipity. It’s almost irrelevant who knocked him out on other occasions, because repeat offenders are exceptionally rare on Federer’s Grand Slam charge sheet. More pertinently, it is largely Djokovic who has for the past few years prevented Federer from luxuriating at the summit of tennis. And it is Djokovic who has now defeated Federer in back-to-back Wimbledon finals.
The answer for Federer is relatively simple – find a way past Djokovic and the rest should take care of itself. The good news for him is unlike the currently moribund Nadal, whose game functions are like an antidote to his, Djokovic poses a more agreeable challenge. As much is reflected in the 15-7 head-to-head lead for Djokovic since 2011 to-date – a period in which Novak has clearly been the world’s best player and in which Federer has been relatively hampered by age. In fact, since 2014 Djokovic only has a slight 6-5 edge.
However, a closer look at those results shows that Federer has mainly beaten him on quick surfaces. Federer’s victories in Shanghai Masters, Dubai and last week in the Cincinnati Masters over the past 12 months have been engineered on some of the fastest hard courts on the ATP Tour, where the Swiss’s primary weapons – his serve and forehand – are most lethal.
Over the past year, fast courts have also aided Federer’s newly cultivated hyper-aggressive game plan, supplemented by kamikaze net-rushing, which take away time from Djokovic. Meanwhile, fast courts also blunt Djokovic’s outrageous defensive skills and tend to be low-bouncing, allowing Federer to optimise his slice backhand.
Unfortunately for Federer, the authorities at Flushing Meadows have slowed down the US Open surface speed over time into a medium-paced court that has provided more leeway for the likes of Djokovic, Nadal and Andy Murray to ply their defensive skills. While Federer’s net-rushing was irksome for Djokovic in the Cincinatti final last week, the tactic is less likely to succeed in New York.
The other reason a Federer victory seems unlikely is his prospect of winning a five-set match against Djokovic. The latter has a 5-2 edge in five-set clashes between the two since 2011. It’s far more feasible for Federer to subdue Djokovic over a decisive 30-minute period and stamp his authority on the match than to see him outlast the Serb in a see-sawing three hour battle.
Federer’s game is suited for a sharp, efficient, blitzkrieg in shock and awe style. Serve a couple of aces. Sneak into the net off a chip return and knock off a volley. Hit a short slice backhand and follow it up with a flick backhand passing shot. React to a blistering passing shot with a lunging stab volley winner that pierces through the opponent’s spirit. In essence, at his best he can play the game better than anyone else and demoralise his opponents.
Djokovic admitted as much after their Wimbledon final this year when he said,
“He plays one, two game very quickly, chips and charges, just takes away the time, which Andy and I need. We are baseline players and we need a little bit more time. We are not as talented as Roger. Wins his service games in 30 seconds.”
But much as Federer is talented, he can’t keep up his stunning level of play for long stretches – a point that has been well illustrated as he has aged. Djokovic, on the other hand, is built for the long run. He relies less on risk-taking as he does on consistency, stamina, and grit. He knows that if he can weather Federer’s purple patch, he can play the match on his terms.
In best-of-three, that may not always be possible. In best-of-five set matches though, the odds are in Djokovic’s favour. Knowing this, I – as perhaps many other Federer’s fans – have made peace with him ending his career with five US Open titles. But there is a hint of a restless spirit that still wants him to reclaim a title that he had marked as his own. It doesn’t seem right for him not to reclaim it. But he might just do it. Perhaps he can pull off one last shock and awe campaign.