There are a lot of times, when even a five set match is not as thrilling as a five setter should be (consider the match between Soderling vs Dolgopolov, which was a series of five one sided battles). There are others, when even a straight set victory in three sets can be more compelling than a five set drama.
Today was such a match. Roger Federer was playing the Annacone brand of tennis in the first set, and even though he wasn’t getting a break, there was a sense that Roger, with his more aggressive mindset would take away the tie-breaker. Unexpectedly, Roger got too passive, feeding Djokovic enough pace to let him attack his one handed backhand, and lost the first set.
Fair enough. Can Djokovic sustain this high level of play? Will Federer attain his mid match brain wobbles? Federer continued to feed Djokovic enough pace to let him attack Federer’s backhand, and quickly got a set and a break lead. And then Federer did something which was unexpected—started playing junk tennis. He went behind the baseline, used slices and angles, and hit slow balls mid court, robbing Djoker of any pace. Djokovic was rattled, piled on the unforced errors and Federer promptly broke him … twice.
Suddenly, the physical fitness of Djokovic was being suspect, Federer was hitting service winners, and Djokovic was berating himself in frustration. And then, serving for the set at 5-3, out of nowhere, Djokovic broke back to level the set.
It was a physical match. Brad Gilbert, the former coach of Andre Agassi, said that Djokovic was playing the Agassi way—controlling the points from mid court and draining the opponent by making him run to the sides. Agassi used power in his heydays, Djokovic used heavy spin. Of course, Federer’s weak backhand made it easier for him. At times, it felt like watching a Federer vs Nadal match—a war between the two backhands, mostly won by Novak.
Even in this highly physical match, Djokovic played smartly. His backhand was solid throughout the match, and his forehand seems to be on the upward rise ever since that epic semifinal between the two at New York. And when his ground strokes were not enough, his serve came to his rescue—something we could not have expected last year. He hit only six aces, out of which four came in the third. Two of them, when he break points down, one of them on deuce, and another one of them at 15-15 while serving for the match—each ace at a time when he most desperately needed it.
And when he won, the celebration was not as dramatic as it was in New York. Riding on a high confidence stream since his Davis Cup victory, he believed in himself against Federer this time, and was clinical right from the start to finish. He is now 3-3 against Federer in Slams, and this is by no means a small feat.
Where does this leave Roger Federer? He played well today, right from the start to finish. He tried to be aggressive, changed his tactics mid way by playing junk tennis—which paid dividends—and kept Nole on the toes with some spectacular exhibition of touch … he flat footed Nole twice and both times he slipped to the ground.
For all the talk of a Federer-Nadal final, this will only the second time since French Open 2005 that neither of the two will feature in a Major final. Should Andy Murray get past David Ferrer in the next semis, we will have a battle which we have rarely seen, a battle which we deserve to see more often—a battle between the eternal No. 3 and No. 4, between Djokovic and Murray. If that does happen, it would be tempting to say that after all these years, a change of guard has finally taken place. But that is still too distant.