Fun, finesse and firepower as IPTL reunites Djokovic and Federer in New Delhi

Roger Federer and Novak Djokovic went head-to-head in the innovative inaugural International Premier Tennis League

Marianne Bevis
By Marianne Bevis

It was a disappointment of huge proportions for those gathered at the O2 to watch the climax of the ATP year, the deciding match of the ATP World Tour Finals between the top two players in the world, Novak Djokovic and Roger Federer.

It would have been the sixth meeting of 2014, the 37th overall, in one of the finest, most exhilarating rivalries of the current era. And what began as a rather edgy relationship blossomed over the years into one of mutual respect, and seemed this year to move a step closer to friendship with the birth of Djokovic’s first child last month.

They had, Djokovic admitted in London, shared a few conversations about the challenges of travelling with a family, but it is on court that their rivalry has forged itself into one of the finest quality, pitching Federer’s fluency, attack and tactical guile against the super-fit, super-flexible body and intellect of one of the greatest defenders in the game.

So when Federer withdrew from their London final with back injury, the disappointment was more than understandable. Their paths were not set to cross again before the Australian Open—but Christmas came early.

The innovative inaugural playing of the International Premier Tennis League signed up some big names in its rule-stretching, clock-racing, four-way contest between squads in Manila, Singapore, New Delhi and Dubai.

Djokovic was an early recruit to the Dubai team for its three-day home tie, but in a bonus for the organisers, Federer stepped into the breach left when Rafael Nadal pulled out of the New Delhi team after an injury and illness hit season.

And that meant not only Federer’s first ever appearance on an Indian tennis court—and a boost in ticket sales and social media hype—but the prospect of two rather special moments. First, Djokovic’s UAE Royals would be ranged against Federer’s Micromax Aces, and second, Federer would share a players’ bench, and perhaps a doubles court, with one of his heroes, Pete Sampras.

Federer even flew in with Sampras to a rapturous welcome from the pulsating Indira Ghandi Stadium.

But Sampras, like many of the big names taking on this rule-busting format, struggled to adapt to the scoring, the time-clock, the time-outs and power-points, and with no time for practice or preparation was slow to adapt to the pacey, low-bouncing court. He was straight in at the deep end.

Andy Murray, Maria Sharapova, Daniela Hantuchova and Tomas Berdych struggled in their early matches—playing singles plus mixed and same-sex doubles into the bargain—but they soon found their IPTL legs. Serena Williams joined the fray in Singapore, started slowly, but quickly had the beating of Ana Ivanovic and Caroline Wozniacki. Andre Agassi found the going tough, too—and Sampras found himself in the same boat.

Opening the day’s first session with the ‘Legends’ set, he looked a touch bewildered and a little jet-lagged—and he lost to Pat Rafter.

No such problem, it seemed, for Federer. Famed for his serious, controlled countenance on court, the Swiss by nature has a gregarious, extrovert personality, and here was where he could show it. The lively format, the camaraderie, the chance to show off his net skills, saw him throw his weight into mixed doubles, then men’s doubles, and finally men’s singles—winning all three.

Djokovic, who arrived in Delhi soon after Federer, opened his evening tie more conservatively with just a touch of doubles: He and Nenad Zimonjic lost, but it got the Djokovic legs ready for the big match ahead.

Come the final day, Delhi vs Dubai, Federer sat out the mixed doubles—until half way through, that is. With a match against Djokovic looming large, he clearly wanted to get the body warmed up and focused.

Next came what should have been the much-heralded combo of Federer and Sampras, but carrying a muscle pull, Sampras handed his spot to Gael Monfils—and the fireworks began.

The French and the Swiss both showed off slam-dunk smashes and then, in a variation on the Bryan brothers’ chest bump, did a leaping shoulder bump. The arena went into uproar—and all the more so when Djokovic was subbed into the opposing team. To spice things up still further, the set went to a five-minute shoot-out—a race to the most points against the clock—to determine the winner: It was Federer and Monfils.

But everyone knew what had packed out the vast Delhi arena for the first time in the tournament’s three days: the last set of the last match on the last day in India.

And if anyone thought this would be played as an exhibition, they were wrong. It was as competitive as any tour match, but with high-intensity rallies packed into every point of the 25-minute set.

As always, Federer and Djokovic produced some jaw-dropping tennis—angled backhand winners, cross-court forehands, lobs and drops, chasing retrievals and high-power net rushes. It had everything: breaks, saved set-points, net-cord winners, and probably the most athletic tennis on the IPTL tour to date. The look on Djokovic’s face at a backward-facing backward-struck overhead smash from Federer was worth the price of entry alone.

Their set would, appropriately, go to another shoot-out, just edged by Federer—though the tie would go to Djokovic’s team.

Afterwards interviewed alongside one another on court—a rarity in itself—both talked of the thrill of playing one another on such a stage and to such a high standard.

Yes, this has become an increasingly warm rivalry: there were smiles, embraces, private words, and more compliments than you could throw a stick at.

There was no year-end trophy at stake, this was not a Grand Slam draw, and there were no points to boost their rankings. But there was no doubting their effort, their desire to win—and just how compelling this rivalry has become.

Neither may commit to the event next year: Despite Federer describing it as a “goose-bumps atmosphere”, he also talked of the importance of finding time for family and training in the off-season.

But wherever and whenever we can be treated to these two men playing one another, it can only be good for the sport of tennis.

Roll on 2015.

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