MASON (United States) • As he tries to reach new heights amid the crowded landscape of tennis history, Novak Djokovic keeps finding the same immovable objects blocking his path.
Playing in his fifth final of the year in Mason, a Cincinnati suburb, on Sunday, the Serb had a chance to become the first man to have won all nine of the elite Association of Tennis Professionals (ATP) Masters Series events.
But Roger Federer again stood in his way, with the Swiss claiming his seventh title in Mason with a 7-6 (7-1), 6-3 victory in the Cincinnati Masters final.
The loss was Djokovic's third to Federer in the tournament's final, after defeats in 2009 and 2012.
"I've never won this title so I guess I have to wait for Roger to retire," Djokovic said at the trophy ceremony, drawing laughs.
"But I've been really trying, giving my best. Today wasn't the day."
Federer's attempt to be sympathetic also drew giggles. "I really hope for you that you can win here one day," the Swiss said.
"Of course, he deserves it. So close, so many years."
Serena Williams retained her women's title, beating Simona Halep 6-3, 7-6 (7-5) in the final.
The men's final was the 41st match between Djokovic and Federer. It is the second-highest total for a rivalry in tennis history, behind only Djokovic's 44 meetings with Rafael Nadal.
Having entered the final with their series tied at 20-20, Djokovic had a chance to pull ahead for the first time. But the tournament, with its fast courts and rigid tennis balls, optimises conditions for Federer, his opponent said.
"I think he's more aggressive here than in any other tournament because the surface and conditions allow him to play very fast," the world No. 1 said. He copes well with the fast balls, fast game. He likes this rhythm; I don't too much. It was the right tactic for him."
Federer has never been quite as aggressive as he was this week, especially with his return position.
After successfully rushing to nearly the service line to return second serves against opponents, he tried the tactic against Djokovic several times, including a crucial juncture of the tiebreaker, with the Serb serving at 1-3.
The bold charge paid off. Federer's reflex forehand stab landed deep in Djokovic's backhand corner, forcing an error from Djokovic into the net and turning the match firmly in the Swiss' favour.
Djokovic seemed annoyed when the tactic was mentioned.
"He's very, very aggressive when he's returning second serves," the Serb said. "He was trying, this week, something new.
"I have no comment about it."
Djokovic's declining to answer the question matched the goal of Federer's play: To make his rival uncomfortable through increasingly aggressive tactics.
"That was the plan, to keep asking question after question," Federer said of his strategy.
"I'm happy it worked out very well."
NEW YORK TIMES