He won his first two service games without too much trouble, mixing in some scurrying baseline rallies with the odd shot across the Serb’s bows—an ace here, a forehand winner down the line there. He even picked up a couple of points on Djokovic’s opening service game. But he would take not another point on the Serb’s serve in the set.
It had taken almost a quarter of an hour to reach 2-2, but it soon became clear that 14 minutes was what Djokovic required to get his eye in, assess the speed on this warm evening, and accustom himself to the Ferrer rhythms and pace. That done, he stepped into the baseline, tuned up his forehand and backhand to metronomic perfection and began to work the winners down either wing.
In the fifth game, his baseline superiority already asserted, he threw in a couple of volleys for his first break point and was up 3-2 in the blink of an eye. One more blink, a love hold, and Djokovic was 4-2, another—this time pulling Ferrer back from 40-15 for another break—and it was 5-2. Djokovic served out, in under half an hour, 6-2.
Most had expected that Ferrer’s task against the defending champion would be formidable. He had lost all three of their matches last year, all on hard courts, including a straight-sets defeat here in the quarter-finals. But Ferrer had taken the first set in their four-set semi-final match at the US Open, and the Spaniard was without doubt enjoying one of the best phases of his 12-year professional career.
He ended 2012 with more titles and more match-wins than his opponent—though not once had he got beyond a Grand Slam semi, last year or any year. Djokovic had reached three Major finals last year alone and had won this very title—for the third time.
And Djokovic, as champions seem able to do, was timing his peak to perfection. Some exhibition events before Melbourne had got his game tuned up, and each successive round here challenged him a little more, and in a different way.
Radek Stepanek plied him with serve and volley and Stan Wawrinka punished him on the wings in an attacking all-court five-setter. Then the big-serving Tomas Berdych fine-tuned his receiving game and reactions. Everything was in prime working order—and Ferrer was the unfortunate victim.
The second set might be viewed as more successful—Ferrer took three points on the Djokovic serve and forced three more errors than in the first—but he endured only five minutes longer. He again went down a double break, falling 4-1 down with his first double fault of the match.
Ferrer raced and scrambled with as much vigour as ever, but the set was done and dusted just as the first, 6-2.
As for the third…well even Ferrer began to take on the look of a beaten dog. Winning barely a third of points on his own serve, he took just two against the Djokovic serve. It brought the Spaniard’s tally to just seven for the match.
Djokovic broke in the first and third games, and a double fault from Ferrer gave Djokovic match point. Another error, the Spaniard’s 32nd, conceded the set, and with it the match, in 26 minutes, 6-1. Not only had he dropped only seven points on serve, he had converted all seven break point chances.
Here was a display of tennis from Djokovic that was at once awe-inspiring in its clinical efficiency and soul-destroying in its impact on any real drama. Ferrer was a beaten man from early in the second set. The concluding set and a half served merely to emphasise the gap between him and the top four men—though with a cruel sense of timing, Ferrer will take Rafael Nadal’s place at No4 after the Australian Open.
Ferrer has now lost at the semi-final stage of a Major five times and all of those defeats have come at the hands of Djokovic, Nadal or Andy Murray:
“It is difficult to reach the final of a Grand Slam. Sometime it doesn’t depend on me, it depends on my opponent. When I made the semi-finals, I lost to the best three players. I am trying to do my best every match, but I know they are better than me. What can I do?”
He could do even less than usual against a Djokovic in today’s form, and the Serb conceded as much:
“I played incredible tennis. I felt very confident and comfortable from the start. It was definitely one of the best performances I ever had in my career.
“It can only do positive things to my confidence. Definitely at this stage of a tournament, playing semi-finals against the world No4, somebody that I have respect for, great competitor, and being able to perform as well as I did, it’s incredible.
“I have a great feeling about myself on the court at this moment. Now I have two days off before the finals which gives me enough time to get ready.”
He will not know who faces him in that final until tomorrow, when the second semi-final is played out between the No2 and 3 seeds, Murray and Federer.