It was the semi final of the Australian Open. 2 sets down, Roger Federer fights back to win the third set and just as his fans start to believe a comeback is possible, Djokovic, in a manner only he can, takes the third set 6-3 to advance to the final which he eventually wins. That win meant that Novak Djokovic had finally overtaken Federer in their head to head record, with 23 wins against the Swiss legend as opposed to his 22 triumphs. And it looks highly unlikely that the tables will turn back in Federer’s favour again.
Tennis is a game that’s as much about mental strength as it is about good technique and physical fitness. If you cannot believe you can beat the person standing on the other side of the net, you have already lost half the battle. The top guns in the game possess unprecedented mental strength, combined with their arsenal of shotsand it’s a rare occasion to see them end on the losing side.
But when it comes down to the big matches, the showdowns for Grand Slam glory, even the best in the business, crack! Throughout his illustrious career, Federer has been a fighter and mind you, a very strong one at that. But even the most flawless player to pick the racquet has his limitations, limitations that were constantly exploited by Rafa Nadal and now his new Grand Slam nemesis, Novak Djokovic.
Considering many of the impossible feats this man from Basel has achieved, there’s no denying that he is mentally tough, but is he better at this trait than his Spanish and Serbian competitors? It would seem he isn’t. Well, at least, the numbers say so and people who have been following him will not hesitate in admitting this.
Federer is not even in the top 100 players, when it comes to winning 5 set matches and his record against the very best in the game in the deciders, is even worse. Federer’s winning percentage in 5 setters is less than 60, and he has lost some of the biggest matches, after being in a winning position. For instance, the double match points he blew away on his serve in the US Open semi-final against Novak, and then ended up being broken again to hand him the match, is still considered one of the biggest choking moments in the modern era.
So what goes on inside the head of one of the calmest faces in tennis? Well, Federer certainly isn’t used to chasing his opponents down on the scoreboard – he likes leading and dictating the game and that’s how he has played through a career spanning almost 17 years! He isn’t allowed to do that these days, especially by the Serbian Machine- Novak Djokovic. You can combine a team of experts and they still won’t be able to figure why Roger picked to receive after winning the toss in the recent semi-final against Novak!
Federer also has this uncanny tendency to play his worst game at a break point and when he’s up against the other members of the big four, that’s bound to hurt. The epic 2008 Wimbledon final saw the Swiss legend failing to convert 12 out of the 13 opportunities he had. Result? He ended up losing the greatest match of all time!
Here’s a look at some of the crucial matches he lost and some related stats:
2009 Australian Open Final vs Nadal: Break Points converted 6/19
2010 US Open semi vs Djokovic: 65 Unforced Errors. 2 Match Points lost
2011 US Open semi vs Djokovic: 2 set advantage lost. 2 Match Points lost
2015 Wimbledon Final vs Djokovic: Break Points converted 1/7
2015 US Open Final vs Djokovic: Break Points converted 4/23 and 54 Unforced Errors
If you closely follow the trend, in the last 4 Grand Slam clashes against Djokovic, Federer has always entered the match with a much better form, routing his opponents with ease while Novak did play one tight match or two before he faced the Swiss. The ruthless efficiency Federer displayed against Murray in last year’s Wimbledon was dismantled by Novak in the final.
It’s not just the fact that Federer’s game drops drastically against Novak, it’s also how the Serb has constantly pushed the mental envelope of Federer, pulling him out of his comfort zone and playing better when it matters the most. There is still no doubt that Federer has everything in his bag to beat the world number one in best of five sets, but does he believe in his head that it’s possible? So far, he hasn’t looked convincing.
The unforced errors creep in, the immaculate first serve percentage drops and break points come and go – that’s pretty much the story of Federer against Djokovic, having failed to crack the enigma since Wimbledon 2012. There was a stage in the recently concluded semi between these two, when Federer failed to return 2 consecutive second serves after being 0-30 up, serves that were below par, that should have been easily throttled across the net, if only he had been a bit more mentally involved or had Djokovic allowed him that liberty.
When Federer was losing to Nadal in the French Open finals, he hardly ever reacted, hardly ever let his emotions roll out, maybe he had made his way with it. A somewhat similar energy surrounded this towering personality in the first two sets in the Australian Open semi. Federer let out at least 3 shouts of “C’mon” against Berdych in the Q/F, in the first set tie-break alone. Wonder how many times that happened against Novak? And that is the scary part. The world wants to see more of him, more of his emotions, especially in these big clashes, so that they believe he’s in it to win it and not just go by the statements in the press conferences.
Having being ruled out for a month due to a knee injury, it just might be the perfect opportunity for Federer to recover mentally. For no matter how many times he says he can beat Djokovic, there’s something that halts him when he enters the court, something similar to the times when he faced Nadal at the biggest stages of the game.
There’s not much a 34-year-old can change in his game though a better down the line backhand won’t hurt anyone – a crucial aspect that needs to work in order to beat Djokovic. At least, he is spared from the topspin forehand-to-backhand tactic in this rivalry.
The SEVENTEEN TIME Grand Slam champion soon needs to figure out the tactics for his next battle against the Serbinator, so that the elusive eighteenth is finally conquered. He may be aging like fine wine, but the time is surely not on his side!