LONDON • Tomas Berdych, who knows a thing or two about losing to Novak Djokovic, said before the start of these ATP World Tour Finals that only a serious dip in form by tennis' world No. 1 and defending champion would wreck the Serb's unbeaten run of matches, and it finally stalled at 23.
With all due respect, Roger Federer is not Tomas Berdych. So, when the 34-year-old Swiss's trust in his glorious shotmaking paid a first-set dividend on Tuesday, most of the 20,000 fans at the O2 Arena inched forward in expectation of the most loved man in tennis bursting the bubble of maybe the most straightforward.
There was no misunderstanding the scoreline after a mere hour and 17 minutes, however, as Djokovic shoved his final forehand into the tramlines and the packed arena rose to acclaim Federer's 7-5, 6-2 victory, guaranteeing him a place in the semi-finals as he pursues a seventh end-of-season title.
If they meet in Sunday's final (as they were due to last year before Federer's back gave up on him), there might be a different narrative - Djokovic came into this match unbeaten in 38 matches under a roof, with only five losses anywhere all year - but, for now, Federer will revel in drawing one win clear of his rival overall, 22-21.
Djokovic struck 22 unforced errors, which he considered unacceptable, and only 12 winners, and his serve was less than potent, two aces inconveniencing his opponent, with six coming back at him.
But he broke back in the second set and briefly looked as if he could turn it around.
The win meant a lot to Federer, who was welling up on court afterwards. "A special night for tennis," said the Swiss. "I did play very well. It is indoors, so aggressive tennis pays off. The tactic was to mix it up. I have to do that against Novak to have a chance."
Federer beat Djokovic in Cincinnati before the US Open this year, so he might have figured out something about his game that others - including Berdych - have either not spotted or can do little about.
Djokovic said later: "I was not even close to my best. I made a lot of unforced errors, and just handed him the first set, but it's a round robin and I still have a chance to reach the semis (tonight he plays Berdych, who lost 5-7, 6-3, 3-6 to Kei Nishikori on Tuesday).
"Overall I was not moving well, especially in first shots in the rallies. But these things happen. I have to accept it. On a court that was much slower than Cincinnati and the US Open, I allowed him to dictate play from the baseline."
Despite ending Djokovic's 15-match winning streak at the venue, Federer reckons he may well have to beat the Serb again at the weekend if he is to claim a seventh ATP Tour Finals title.
"Still to me Novak is the favourite," Federer said. "He's far from gone. The way I know Novak, he's going to find a way to be tougher to beat from now on."
THE GUARDIAN, REUTERS
ATP WORLD TOUR FINALS
Day 5: StarHub Ch201, 10pm & tomorrow, 4am