In recent times, Djokovic has held the upper hand over Federer more often than not, and in the big stages, Federer is outplayed on all fronts by the Serb.
Most recently, in the finale of the ATP World Tour Finals, Federer fell to the immaculate ground shots and perfect serves of the Serb.
The harsh truth for Fed fans is that the era of the ‘Serbinator’ is well underway, Novak Djokovic- the boy who grew up practising in empty swimming pools in war torn Serbia is the greatest tennis player right now, and no amount of ignorance and denial by Federer fans will change that.
And it was not the case that Federer played a complacent match or was below his best, but that his opponent was just endowed with the more superior game on matchday. It seemed that every Nole had the counterpunch for every trick that the Swiss tried to pull off.
While one would argue that Federer got the better of Novak earlier this week, he surely got back to his best when it mattered the most. There were some very interesting changes in Novak’s game today which helped him muster victory. Here are some of them:
Novak’s obliterating backhand
Stefan Edberg definitely had the wrong ploy in mind when it came to the groundshot making in the wrong rallies. One could clearly notice the dominance with which Novak dispatched anything short down the line off his backhand. Even when it came to the longer rallies, it was evident that Nole preferred to get most of his winners off the far end of the backhand side of the court.
The repeated slices from Federer just play into the hands of the Serb who arguably has a weaker forehand when it comes to winners. Djokovic heavily relies on getting a hold of a point by making his opponent move around the court vehemently courtesy of strong injunctive cross court backhands as well.
Similar was the case when it came to Federer’s second serves. The repeated tendency to not go more straight in the ad-side serves was a crucial factor in Djokovic making such forceful returns as well. It was perhaps very dismal to see how Federer just couldn’t make any inroads with his formidable kick-spin off the second serve considering the fact that he has had a perfect record prior to the match.
2. Federer’s first serve
While Federer did manage to get 73 percent of his first serves in the second set, it was surprinsgly as low as 55 percent in the first set at 3-3.
Experts did mention in the pre-match analysis that the most critical factor for Federer lied in getting most of his service games. It isn’t as easy to break Djokovic when he is boosted up by the irreproachable returns he makes off the Swiss maestro’s first serve. It is a totally different ball game when you have to serve 0-15 down than 15-0 up, and it certainly impacts your approach towards the hold too.
But something that Federer really improved on as compared to his previous encounters was his willingness to volley more. Even the limited first serves that Federer got in, were backed up by crisp volleying. A higher first serve percentage would have definitely changed the course of the match for Roger.
3. Unforced errors
22 unforced errors in a matter of 9 games in the first set almost sealed the deal for Roger. While it was apparent that Novak wasn’t pulling anything special off the box yet, Federer made a bundle of errors in trying to do something special. It has become more of a psychological thing now for Federer against Djokovic in finals, when he tries too hard to get the first break and ends up making more errors than he’d want to.
As compared to previous occurences, Nole was losing a major portion of the rallies that went above 9 shots and continuing to keep the ball in play would have seemed to be much more effective than get outright winners for Federer. The Swiss along with his coaching team visibly over-strategise for these matches, because Novak just manages to do the basics right. He doesn’t have the strong dismissive ground strokes of Wawrinka, or the court coverage of Ferrer, or Nadal’s unsettling left-handed prowess, but a technique that is ultimately focused on doing the small things with ultimate precision.
4. Djokovic has the measure of Federer
Following on to the previous point, it wasn’t just that Federer was sloppy. It was more like Djokovic ‘made’ him play sloppy. However, lyrical it sounds that Federer even controls the extent to which his opponent performs on the court, it is a disservice to players like Rafa Nadal and Novak Djokovic. Federer doesn’t just start performing lousily against Djoker on the big stages. The Serb’s game makes him do that. His unmatched court coverage and power of retrieving means that while going for the spectacular, Federer has to hit that forehand a tad bit finer, that backhand a bit more angular. And because he already plays with such fine margins, pushing it further just causes those uncharacteristic errors.
5. The under-rated Djokovic serve
On multiple occasions, Djokovic won straight from 0-15 down with a high quality kicker of a second serve. While it doesn’t look as flashy or flambuoyant as the other in the big 4, Djokovic’s service is a huge asset he possesses in the armory.
A couple of times in the first set, Federer anticipated the ball wrong off Novak’s second serve leading to them becoming inconsequential aces. It was like the Serb had come prepared mentally to conquer any possible instance of the SABR in the match.
May it be the kicker on the far right of the ad-court or and more angled one on the left service line otherwise, Federer had a noticeable problem in returning the relatively slow second serves from Novak. The high rotations on the ball complemented the slow court surface making injecting pace on the returns even more difficult for Roger.
No point hiding behind essays after essays. Djokovic is a cyborg, who plays with an astonishing efficiency, which doesn’t always make for beautiful viewing, but is quite unheard of, ever. And might not be surpassed.
This isn’t to say that he doesn’t have his weak points. But, he is the mentally strongest athlete ever. He makes up for faults in his play ( though there are hardly any) with a combination of iron will and physical endurance, making it almost a surreal experience, if one were to beat him.
Federer should not be completely disheartened by his performance because the match was a lot closer than the score suggests. On the contrary, it is a personal opinion that Federer came out with much more positivity off the back of his win earlier in the week and the tide would’ve turned in his favour if only he made some fine adjustments in his approach. Djokovic might be in the form of his life, but Federer surely does prove to be a worthy competitor more often than not.