But with the draw already made, there were three factors that suggested a different line-up in the title match.
Federer had left hanging his decision to play in Rome right up to the last minute, so when he lost his first match in Madrid, it seemed Rome would be the beneficiary. But the opening weekend came and went without a sign of the Swiss.
Then there was the draw, which dropped seven-time champion and Federer’s nemesis, Rafael Nadal, in his half.
Finally there was history: 14 times Federer had come to Rome and his best results were three finals. At the last two of those finals, Nadal had beaten him—as he had in four French Open finals and three Monte Carlo finals. And as Nadal had reached the Rome final in nine of the last 10 years, it seemed a fair bet that he would bar Federer’s path to the title match this year.
As sure as night follows day, though, defending and three-time champion Djokovic, continued his majestic 2015 progress to his sixth consecutive final of the year and, with or without Nadal, he was favoured to win his 22nd straight match and fourth straight Masters title.
And against the odds, it would be Federer who faced him. For not only had he bowled up, barely noticed, last Monday, but he had won four matches in four days against the likes of Tomas Berdych and Stan Wawrinka without dropping a set.
It is safe to say, then, that the sun had shone on Rome. For not only were both men in good form, not only had Federer been the last to beat Djokovic—in the Dubai final—but this much-played rivalry, now into its 39th meeting, had become perhaps the most intense and charismatic among the ‘big four’ combinations.
For the Federer and Djokovic rivalry has built, through almost a decade, into one of the most compelling, pitching Federer’s all-court fluency, attack and tactical guile against the super-fit, super-flexible body and intellect of one of the greatest defenders in the game. Their matches take on the look of physical chess, such that even the protagonists recognise the chemistry.
Djokovic: “If I get to play Roger, it’s the ultimate final that I can have… He always makes you play [at the] highest level if you want to win…This is something that makes me come out with the highest possible concentration and intensity and commitment.”
Federer: “I think we play very nice against each other, and it seems people like the way we play, as well. I don’t think we have to adjust our games very much against each other: We can just play our game, and then the better man wins… It’s really a pleasure playing against him every single time.”
Over the last two years, they had been evenly matched: Federer won on the clay of Monte-Carlo last year, Djokovic won a classic five-set final at Wimbledon, Federer had twice won Dubai, Djokovic has twice won Indian Wells. With both poised at 23 Masters titles, who would take the lead with 24?
The match began with an unusual decision from Federer: He won the toss but chose the end rather than to serve—and he would never lead in the score from start to finish.
The Djokovic serving these days is one of his great strengths, not dissimilar to Federer’s own. It is not the fastest but is accurate and varied and invariably within inches of the lines.
He opened with a hold to 15, and backing up his serve with crisp, incisive shot-making from the baseline, he followed that with a love hold. This was quick-fire tennis, and Federer was unable to take control, pinned to the back by perfect depth of shot from Djokovic.
When Federer did get into the net, he made a couple of early errors, hit a forehand long, and fought through a couple of deuces to hold, 2-2.
They then raced on to 4-4, with Djokovic averaging two minutes per service game, Federer under two minutes.
The first—and what would be the only—glimmer of an opening for Federer came in the next game: Djokovic double faulted, his only one of the match, and Federer chipped returns short to draw a couple more errors and a deuce. But on what would be his only break point of the match, Federer held back just a fraction, and Djokovic held.
The Serb then went after the Federer serve, powering his return of serve onto the baseline and drawing the Swiss error. The Serb did it again, in a forehand cross-court winner reminiscent of the match-saving strike he made at the US Open. It earned break point, and Federer netted a backhand. Djokovic led, 6-4.
Djokovic now rode his advantage, apparently unable to mis-time a ball as he turned defence into attack time and again. Federer was on the back foot on serve, and found himself defending wide of the tramlines on both wings, forced into errors. The Swiss saved two break points on his opening serve, one with a show-stopping backhand pass from outside the court, but it would not be enough. Djokovic broke at the third attempt, and held to love for 3-0.
Only some clutch serving from Federer held off another break chance in the fourth game, and while the Swiss held onto Djokovic’s coat-tails through the rest of the set, he never looked like breaking down his opponent’s clinical, tactically-taxing baseline game.
Djokovic served it out, 6-3, after just an hour and a quarter—his fourth Rome title, his fourth Masters of 2015, and his 24th Masters.
It has been a remarkable season for the world No1, and he now has a 35-2 winning record. And once again, he showed his ability to lift the level of his near flawless tennis—he made just 10 unforced errors in this match—when the occasion and the opponent demand it. As he said afterwards: “I played my best match of the week against Roger.”
Then he went on to touch the subject on everyone’s lips: Can he complete his Major resume by winning his first French Open next month? His spring schedule has been built around that target, missing Madrid to ensure enough rest and practice.
He said: “After 2011, this is probably the best season of my life. I’m not sure what’s going to happen at Roland Garros, but for now I’m very happy.”
One suspects he, and everyone else, has a pretty good idea what will happen as the tour heads to the clay climax in Paris: It’s hard to see anyone denying Djokovic.
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