Indian Wells 2015: World’s best Djokovic and Federer to contest title again

Novak Djokovic beats Andy Murray in straight sets, whilst Roger Federer eases past big-serving Milos Raonic

World No1 Novak Djokovic Photo: Marianne Bevis

It came so close to featuring the top quartet on the men’s tour, the “big four”, this first and favourite Masters tournament of the year in Indian Wells.

Novak Djokovic and Andy Murray made their allotted places for a highly-anticipated replay of their Australian Open final six weeks ago. Roger Federer, though, would face No6 Milos Raonic, who powered past Rafael Nadal in a gripping three-hour three-setter to score his first victory in five previous attempts.

But three out of four isn’t bad, especially with a fourth man who has taken such strides up the rankings to score wins over fellow top-10 players along the way. For it was not just Nadal who had felt the improvement in his tennis. Raonic beat Federer in Shanghai last autumn and pressed him to three sets in the Brisbane final. And he beat Murray here a year ago, his third win in five meetings.

And when it came to form, Raonic matched the top two seeds, Federer and Djokovic, in one stat: All three had reached the quarter-final or better at eight of their last 10 Masters events.

But irrespective of the records and reputations of Raonic and Murray, the two men who owned between them nine Indian Wells titles among their tally of 43 Masters titles, were the men to beat. Federer and Djokovic had already contested the Dubai title this year, had met in the final here last year and, in between, shared the honours in Monte Carlo, Wimbledon and Shanghai. Theirs was becoming not just one of the finest but one of the most popular rivalries in tennis. Could they make it a perfect conclusion in Indian Wells again?

Djokovic would be the first to try his luck, and the supremely confident, supremely fit defending champion looked every inch the world No1. He took on, in Murray, a man precisely one week older than himself, and in the early days of their rivalry, there was little between them. Up to the point that Murray won his first Grand Slam, beating Djokovic in the US Open final in 2012, they were almost square, 8-7. Since then, Murray had won only one of their nine meetings.

And Djokovic was very quickly on course to make it six in a row by playing neat, flawless tennis with his usual precision, change of direction and depth. After a love hold, he forced a Murray forehand wide to break, and held again for 3-0 after barely a quarter of an hour.

Murray got on the board in the fourth game, but was run ragged again in the sixth, taken side-to-side in a long intricate rally to force another error, and the Briton netted a forehand for a break, 5-1.

Djokovic wavered for a moment in serving for the set, opening with a double fault, and then making a poor volley error. Djokovic had Murray on the ropes with a drop and lob, only to fluff another volley, and Murray grabbed back a break with a little help from net-cord pass. Yet still the errors piled up for Murray—three in a row on backhands—and Djokovic broke for the set, 6-2, as Murray put a forehand long, his 16th error for only two winners in the set.

Djokovic himself only made four winners, but his accuracy and persistence ensured he could force Murray into defence and into error time and again.

The second set was slightly more competitive, but Djokovic still got off to a 3-0 lead, throwing in a killer drop-lob combo to hold. Murray dug in to save another break point with some improved serving, and he got his first ace on the board to hold for 3-1.

The rallies were now consistently longer and more even, though Djokovic seemed always eventually to draw the error from Murray. And when the Serb was in trouble in the fifth game, he raced from 15-40 to a hold with fine serving. Murray was simply unable to penetrate Djokovic, and the Serb served it out, 6-3.

Djokovic afterwards could not have put it more succinctly:

“I was hoping I could be this comfortable on the court and start with the right intensity. Andy wasn’t close to his maximum, made a lot of errors, service percentage was low, which allowed me to keep rallies going. I tried to go for variety on second serve… change corners and angles, and stop him getting a rhythm.”

Federer’s task would an altogether tougher affair, though he and Raonic play so fast that their 22 games and 127 points would take a minute less to complete than the 17 games and 110 points played by Djokovic and Murray.

Raonic opened as only he can, holding serve to love, with his serve already cranked up to 138mph by the third game.

Federer’s serve took a while to warm up, and his second serves were punished by the improving Raonic. The Canadian has taken strides not only in his athleticism but also in his all-court tactics, and he pushed Federer to deuce in the fourth game. But while Federer had to work harder during his service games—he made fewer outright winners on serve and so more often had to manipulate rallies to his advantage—there was not a break chance on either side.

That was until the 5-5: Federer sensed his chance when Raonic made a couple of errors. The Swiss chipped a skimming, low return-of-serve to draw the error for break points. They were saved by Raonic’s serving, but then Federer chased down a great drop-shot to put it away with a soft push for a winner. He next sliced a backhand down the line for another break chance, and that slice again drew a fatal error and the break. Federer served out the set to love, 7-5.

Such was the defence of both men that there were remarkably few winners in the set—22—but Federer was playing near perfect tennis against the determined and aggressive Canadian, just six errors in the set’s 68 points.

If anything, the level from both increased in the second, but particularly from Raonic. He was bold and imaginative in his serving and baseline game, throwing in some net chases, finding some fine angles, chasing down tough balls.

But Federer’s fitness, footwork and fluidity of movement not only produced some charismatic winning shots but kept him in points with some exceptional defence. He broke in the long opening game courtesy of his signature acute sliced backhand, and toughed out some tight service games as he edged to the set’s conclusion.

He faced down his only break point of the match—and only his third in the tournament—to hold for 3-1. Raonic had a glimmer of a chance in the very last game, missing a straightforward forehand at 0-30: It would have earned him three break chances. As it was, Federer seized back the initiative and, as he likes to do, ended with a flourish—a serve, volley, volley winner, 6-4.

The win takes Federer to his 40th Masters final. It also extends his streak of sets to 19: He has not dropped one since the start of Dubai. Whether that will still be the case after tomorrow’s final remains to be seen, but judging from last year’s contest with Djokovic, it will be compulsive viewing. Federer agreed:

“After losing 7-6 in the third last year, I couldn’t wait for the moment to play [Djokovic] again right here on Centre Court!”

He added, with a smile: “Sure, I’m going to say everything [about my game plan] right here, right now, so Novak can prepare perfectly against me.”

Though after 37 meetings, it seems doubtful that there will be any surprises on either side: Just wonderful tennis.

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