Not only had they played one another more often than any duo except Djokovic with Rafael Nadal, but they lead all others in meetings at a Grand Slam: This would be their 15th. And their rivalry has seemed only to grow in frequency and intensity in the last year.
During 2015, both put together two outstanding seasons in their own right. Djokovic won 11 titles from 15 finals, including championship runs at three Grand Slams and the World Tour Finals—82 wins for just six losses. Already with the Doha title this year, he entered his 29th Grand Slam semi-final on a 13-match winning streak, having won 36 of his past 37 matches.
Federer, six years the Serb’s senior, and into his 39th Major semi, rode a surge in form in 2014 to win six titles from 11 finals last year. He extended his record Grand Slam finals tally by two but, just as at the World Tour Finals and two Masters, he was beaten to the title by the same man: Djokovic.
And there was the clue to what bolstered the hopes of Federer fans around the world: He was the only man to get the better of Djokovic three times last year, twice in title matches—and that sole winner in Djokovic’s last 37 matches.
Could Federer do it again in their ninth meeting in less than a year, could he hold his slim advantage in their head-to-head, or would the mighty Serb add one more feather to his cap? For Federer remained the only man among the dominant five in tennis—with Nadal, Andy Murray and Stan Wawrinka—who he did not lead.
Another factor bolstered hopes of the Federer lobby, too: He had looked in supreme form in beating the formidable No6 Tomas Berdych in the quarters, and dropped only one set in relatively seamless progress through tough—and youthful—opposition: Grigor Dimitrov, David Goffin and Alexandr Dolgopolov.
Djokovic, for his part, had rarely looked more vulnerable than in making 100 errors in his five-set tussle against Gilles Simon, was rarely called upon to play his best against Kei Nishikori in the quarters, and entered his toughest match with three and a half hours more time on court than Federer’s 9hrs 9mins.
He was, it soon became clear, saving his best for the best, and burst through Federer’s defences and stymied his famed attacking plays right from the first.
Perhaps Federer’s first error was opting to receive rather than open the serving, and Djokovic made hay with a love hold, a swift break, and another hold for 3-0 in just seven minutes. Whether Federer was nervous, troubled by the switch from hot day to cooler night conditions, or simply surprised by the pace and aggression of Djokovic, it was hard to tell: A combination of all three, perhaps.
But the usually fine-tuned Swiss serving was off—he missed some first deliveries by a mile—and Djokovic’s early, deep returns off the second serve drew multiple errors, even from Federer’s famed forehand which too often went long or found the net.
It’s important that your convictions are stronger than your doubts…
The Swiss managed a rare love hold in the fourth game, but two more netted forehands contributed to an easy hold for Djokovic, and the Serb pummelled his flat, deep ground strokes relentlessly.
So he successfully pinned the Federer attack back from the net, broke him again, and despite a couple of flashes of brilliance from the Swiss—a high backhand smash stood out—Djokovic had the set, 6-1, in 22 minutes, two unforced errors to 12.
The second set was little different: Pressure, pace, and precious few errors by Djokovic had Federer on the back foot and unable to ply his aggressive tactics, particularly while his chief weapon, his serve, remained so wayward.
Federer fought off a break point in the first game, while Djokovic aced a love hold in his. Not for the first time, Federer was burned by a winning pass as he tried to come forward, and broken to love. A Djokovic return of serve landing at the Swiss feet made another break, and though Federer saved two break points to score one more game, Djokovic held to love for the second set, 6-2, with just 54 minutes on the clock. He had made just six errors and lost only three points on his first serve—Federer had clocked up 24 errors, only 11 winners.
At last, Federer seemed to make some inroads, and after saving what may have been a decisive break point in the fourth game, he began to find his way to the net—he would make more approaches and more winners than in the previous two sets combined. He was rewarded with his first break chances of the match, and at the fourth attempt, courtesy of a sprint to pick up a drop shot for a winning forehand, he broke.
The arena, 90 per cent of which was willing Federer on, rose as one, and he survived another gruelling service game to take the set, 6-3. Eighteen winners and 18 net plays had done the trick.
It would be almost 12 minutes before they re-engaged as the roof was closed ahead of a promised storm—and Federer thumped four errors from 0-30 up to lose his momentum almost at once. Still his serving level remained below 60 per cent, while Djokovic refocused, kept the errors to a minimum, and snapped his returns to the lines.
He went for the kill in the eighth game with a couple of blistering winners, and despite Federer winning the rally of the match to level at 30-30—a sprinting pick-up, a chase back for a lob, two pressured returns and a backhand winner down the line—he would not win another point. Djokovic snuck break point with a net-cord winner and punished a rash second-serve-and-volley from Federer to break. A love hold was all it took to seal a 19th Major final for Djokovic after 2hrs 19mins.
Djokovic could not deny that he had played some outstanding, focused tennis: “Definitely I played unbelievable in the first two sets, but that is what’s necessary against Roger. I knew he was going to be aggressive, try to mix up the pace and come to the net, but I came out with the right intensity, great concentration, executed everything perfectly.”
Asked about coming through his five-set test against Simon, he explained: “In most Grand Slams I’ve won, I had at least one five-setter. Made me think about what I should do, and get better. It’s important that your convictions are stronger than your doubts… Right now I’m feeling I’m at the peak of my career, and cherishing every moment on court.”
In truth, there were precious few doubts here: He out-served Federer, even on aces, out-received him, made fewer than half the errors, and matched the Swiss for winners. Federer could only complement him: “I’ve seen Novak play this well before. It’s tough when it’s from the start because obviously you got to try to stop the bleeding at some point.
“Those sets run away very quickly. Before you can really do something, 45 minutes, a lot of tennis is being played and it’s tough to get back into it. I found a way, started to play better myself. Made a bit of a match out of it, which was nice. But still disappointed obviously that it didn’t go better tonight. When he gets on a roll, it’s tough to stop.”
Djokovic will play Murray or Milos Raonic in pursuit of a sixth Australian title come Sunday.