A majestic Djokovic pushes the boundaries of tennis and Federer has few answers
One day when he is gone from tennis, his rackets in plastic bags, his many trophies in the attic, a little paunch protruding, perhaps only then will many fans look back and truly appreciate the sheer extraordinariness of Novak Djokovic.
He may not elicit the same emotion as Roger Federer did last night or earn the raw affection offered to Rafael Nadal, but as a skilful practitioner of the tennis arts he is as breathtaking as they are. If we once asked, how can Federer play so many shots, with such spins, then equally it must be asked, how can Djokovic hit so many lines, miss so few balls, rise to so many occasions.
Yesterday, the meticulous Serb did just that as he dissected Roger Federer for two sets, hiccuped in the third and then, as emotion flooded Rod Laver Arena, he held off the Swiss and 15,000 others 6-1, 6-2, 3-6, 6-3 to reach his sixth Australian Open final.
The Swiss did just enough to retrieve his pride, the Serb is one match away from again collecting the ultimate prize. Later, the Serb claimed Federer and Nadal had made him "better", but it will not quite sound like a compliment to the Swiss right now.
Both players were on the same court yesterday but in different places. Federer looked rooted to Rod Laver Arena; the Serb had travelled to The Zone. He read every Federer serve, made every pass, kept every ball deep. Every part of his game and body language confirmed he is in no doubt that he is the best in this business.
Of the first nine points of the match, he won eight. In the first set he made two unforced errors, which in a high-speed, small-margin game borders on the ridiculous. Just to clarify he isn't perfect, he doubled that to four in the next set.
Earlier in the day, Serena Williams had taken just 20 minutes to demolish Agnieska Radwanska in their first set. The slothful Djokovic took 22 and claimed: "(It's) probably the best two sets I have played against Roger."
All day yesterday coaches on both sides must have watched tapes, tabled stats, tuned their tactics. But eventually the player has to implement it, has to find the feel, concentration, speed, intensity, concentration and Djokovic, from his first shot, an ace, had it all.
If it was disappointing for Federer, the loss was scarcely demeaning. He is at the twilight of his tennis, Djokovic is at his peak. Since the 2010 Australian Open, Federer has played 24Grand Slams and won just one. In that same period, Djokovic has won nine.
This is not a robot, not some machine, for those are idle definitions: this is a tennis human redefining the boundaries of accuracy while in motion. He did what champions do, he made Federer - who ironically finished with 34 winners to the Serb's 33 - look more terrible than he was. The Serb simply executed well, in every sense of the word.
"I know," Federer said later, "how important the first set is against Novak especially at this time right now when he's world No. 1. When he gets on a roll, it's tough to stop." But this was worse, two sets had gone, and at 6-1, 6-2 a duel had dampened. A rivalry assumes a collision of comparable talents but this was one-sided.
"Come on, man. Please," yelled a fan at Federer and it was a plea both poignant and powerful. The mood was raw in the stadium as an entire people audibly tried to raise an older champion back to his competitive feet. When the players started the third, the stadium stood and the noise was deafening even as it was moving. When Federer began with an ace, they simply erupted.
Djokovic owns tennis but Federer still knows tennis. In the third set he defended better, upped his consistency, sharpened his attack, used his short slice. In the first set, he won only 14 per cent of second serve points, by the third it was 73 per cent.
When he broke Djokovic to go ahead 4-2 in the set, his name was chanted like a hymn: "Roger, Roger, Roger." Djokovic didn't blink, this worship he has heard before. "I was very patient. I knew that I'm going to have my opportunity." In the fourth set he got it, then he took it.
If it was disappointing for Federer, the loss was scarcely demeaning. He is at the twilight of his tennis, Djokovic is at his peak. Since the 2010 Australian Open, Federer has played 24 Grand Slams and won just one. In that same period, Djokovic has won nine. Their head-to-head record of 23-22 only gives the illusion of closeness. In truth they are not equals any more.
Still Federer does not believe beating the Serb is beyond him and insisted: "Best of three, best of five, I can run for four or five hours. It's not a problem. I prove it in practice again in the off-season, no sweat... I know you guys make it a different case. I get that, because you think I'm old and all that. But it's no problem for me."
Djokovic will not doubt that, but he has finished thinking of Federer. In two days comes a final opponent. He will be ready for anything, even for fans who do not stand for him. With the calm control that typifies his game, he said yesterday that the crowd's affection for Federer is expected considering all he's done for tennis. "He's loved. He's appreciated. He's respected around the world."
What he will never say is that so should he be.
A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on January 29, 2016, with the headline 'A class act and a cut above his rivals'. Print Edition | Subscribe
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