Saturday 24 February 2018 / 08:44 PM

Tenacious Djokovic tames masterful Federer

Who says Father Time can’t be beaten? A month shy of 34 with four children under six in tow, ranked number two in the world and playing the best tennis of his life, Roger Federer has Father Time on the ropes (or down two sets, if you prefer to stay on theme). It is Novak Djokovic who appears rather more difficult to conquer.

A part of what makes the Serb so tough to beat is his mere physical presence across the net. Before a ball has been hit, prior to a serve being struck. Imagine tossing the ball up in the air in preparation to serve, and seeing in the corner of your eye that the person attempting to return is Novak Djokovic. Every single time, right in one’s service motion, the greatest returner of all time can be seen awaiting what you can do with your serve. It is deeply disconcerting, and right there, Djokovic wins an invisible first game. That the umpire doesn’t lean into his mic and call it out makes it no less significant.

Federer felt the pressure, too; Djokovic can be as good as he pleases, and yet, in a vacuum, that should have no bearing on Federer’s first serve. It went down from that ethereal 75% he was able to produce on Friday to a still-excellent 67%. Against Djokovic, however, it wasn’t nearly good enough. To illustrate, Federer lost serve twice as many times in this final (four) than he did in the entire grass-court season leading up to it. If anything, it could have been more. In addition, the big, booming serve, often so reliable on the big points, the one that Federer follows by a growl of encouragement in any of three languages, deserted him completely in the first set tiebreak. Djokovic, having saved two set points moments previously, romped home 7-1.

In a largely one-sided affair that nearly everyone could foresee the inevitable conclusion to, the talking point will be one miraculous little passage of play from Federer. The second set threw up a tiebreak the likes of which we occasionally see in Wimbledon finals; the kind that becomes a classic even before it is over. For many, it would have evoked memories of the epic in the 1980 final between Borg and McEnroe, which the American took 18-16.

It certainly drew comparisons with Federer’s own valiant rearguard action against Nadal in the fourth set tiebreak in 2008, where he came back from hefty deficits to win 10-8. This one finished 12-10 to Federer, but it is grossly unfair to leave it at that. Before it even got to that stage, Djokovic had two set points on the Federer serve at 5-4. He was up 6-3 in the tiebreak and held further set points at 7-6 and 10-9, the latter on his own serve. Houdini would have been within his rights to eat his heart out.

The moments of quality are too many to describe, but the point worth making is that of the most underappreciated aspect of Federer’s game. Under the cloak of that graceful artist, there lies a street-fighter, with a heart that burns with insatiable hunger. His elegance should not take away from his grit and his desire to win ugly; his steely resolve matches that of Djokovic and Nadal.

The spectators lost their marbles for a few minutes there. It was Federer they had come to see, the timeless magician who had charmed this idyllic little village for so many years. When he pumped his fist, the crowd roared and cheered as if they knew him as the lad who lived next door. Wimbledon is quite a stickler for traditions; had it not been so, some might not even have minded calling Centre Court the Roger Federer Lawn. Not many others could play the greatest British tennis player of all time in his backyard and match him for support. The crowd respected Djokovic, but they loved Federer.

It should have been a turning point, that tiebreak. It should have provided the surge that Federer needed, and that the crowd were so raucously eager to assist with. One that perhaps took the game away from his opponent, disconsolate by the loss of a set he was clearly the better player in. Djokovic, however, doesn’t brood and sulk like he used to anymore. His temper never gets its foot in the door to his game. When the umpire called ‘time’ to start the third set, Djokovic stood up, and put down his towel, water bottle and (gluten-free, I’m sure) snacks on the chair beside him. I missed it, but he probably reached into his mind and put his disappointment away with those things too. He had no use for it on court.

Even Federer, once the frustration clears away and clarity settles, will concede that Djokovic probably deserved a straight-sets victory. In the last two sets, he was unplayable. He struck return winners that sometimes more suitably should have been aces, and slowly, methodically and inexorably, he suffocated Federer. Only so many demands can be made of a player’s serve. When you hit a good one, it shouldn’t come back too often. It is a rule Djokovic doesn’t play by, though.

Never giving the seven-time champion a chance on his own serve, the barrage was too much to handle. By the end, Federer’s game had been picked apart, and Djokovic won eight of the last nine points to deny Federer on his beloved grass yet again, winning 7-6(7-1), 6-7(10-12), 6-4, 6-3. It might not be a Slam final that goes down as an all-time great, but you can bet your life that the man who won it certainly will.

[YouTube – Wimbledon]

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Danyal Rasool

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