Cincinnati Masters 2018: Novak Djokovic finally masters Federer in Cincy to claim Golden accolade
Novak Djokovic beats Roger Federer 6-4 6-4 to win the Cincinnati Masters on Sunday
When it comes to the ‘big four’ of 21st century tennis, the rivalries between the quartet have become almost as special and memorable as the achievements of each of the four No1 players, Roger Federer, Rafael Nadal, Novak Djokovic and Andy Murray.
And while the 14-year-long rivalry between Federer and Nadal has become perhaps the most familiar of the set, it is their respective match-ups with Djokovic that have outstripped it.
The most played is between Djokovic and Nadal—52 matches, with their stunning five-set struggle at Wimbledon this year edging champion Djokovic two wins ahead.
But the second most played is, for some, the most thrilling: the 45 matches played through a dozen years between Djokovic and Federer.
Both are capable of probing, accurate serving and both boast flat baseline power, challenging sliced backhands, and an ability to turn defence into attack at the drop of a hat. Their tennis is akin to physical chess—and it can be magical.
Federer himself admitted as much before their 2015 Dubai title match:
“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.”
Not since Dubai in 2007 had they met anywhere short of semi-finals—other than the round-robin stages of the ATP Finals. And their many finals were played in pursuit of the biggest titles—Masters, Majors, and those ATP Finals.
This most compelling of match-ups was also the most evenly balanced, 23-22 in Djokovic’s favour following his victory in Australia a full two and a half years ago. Now at last they would play their 46th match.
But while Djokovic had won six of their last eight meetings, one of those Federer wins was their title bout in Cincinnati in 2015. Indeed three times they had contested the final match at the Western and Southern Open, and three times Federer had won, and without dropping a set.
Now, for both men, there was a lot at stake.
For Federer, playing his 150th final, he could push his total title tally to 99, and extend his record for Cincinnati titles to eight, having extended his winning streak at the tournament to 14 after winning the title at his last two visits.
But his 37-year-old body and mental resilience had been tested by the weather perhaps more than most. There was a long day of waiting on Thursday until the washed-out schedule was cancelled, forcing two complete matches on Friday—the second one, a testing three-setter against Stan Wawrinka, not finishing until midnight. He got to bed, he said, at 3.30am on Saturday, and was back on site 12 hours later to prepare for his semi-final.
He enjoyed something of a break when David Goffin retired injured in the second set, but confessed during his post-match media commitments: “I’m tired!”
And it showed in his tennis, which was lack-lustre until Goffin served at 5-6. Even so, Federer could not convert three break chances, before his often-wayward forehand came good in the tie-break, 7-6(3).
Djokovic, playing his first tournament since his triumphant return to top form at Wimbledon, had a truly golden prize at stake: The Golden Masters. For while he and his big rivals had all won the complete set of Majors, no-one had ever won all nine Masters. Cincinnati had remained stubbornly resistant to the Serb through five finals. Here was his sixth chance.
And Djokovic, too, had taken time to adjust to the varying conditions and lack of rhythm through broken matches and days. Four of his five matches had taken three sets, as losses of concentration offered up unexpected breaks, but his toughness and athleticism kicked in to beat dangerous opposition: Grigor Dimitrov, Milos Raonic and Marin Cilic.
Both finalists, though, conceded that they needed to play better when faced with one another. In the event, one managed to do so, the other did not.
Federer opened serve, but did not look entirely convincing. He faced an immediate break point and two deuces, but found an ace to hold.
Djokovic, in contrast, held to love, with Federer unable to get a grip on his returns. The pressure came off in the third game, though, with a love hold from Federer courtesy of a high backhand volley.
There were no holes in the next couple of service games either, but come the seventh, a crack appeared in the Swiss game. A shanked backhand for deuce, then an ace; a volley wide, deuce, a double fault, break point; and Federer air-hit a final ball to give up his first break of serve after a run of 100 holds at the tournament.
Federer righted the ship, but he did not look his usual unruffled self, as errors flowed from his racket. Instead, it was Djokovic who had the calm, serene demeanour, and he served out the set, in straightforward manner, 6-4.
The Federer forehand had been unusually troublesome all week, and the errors continued to pile up off that wing. He immediately made two forehand errors to open the second set, and a third made it deuce. He held, though, and all at once, it was Djokovic who seemed to tighten up. Despite a couple of ill-advised races to the net, Federer worked break point, and the Serb double faulted for the first time: 2-0 to the Swiss.
But Federer could not capitalise, going instead for some reckless plays, and charging the net on almost every point. He hit a volley wide, double faulted, sent another easy smash wide, and Djokovic had broken straight back.
The Federer error count rose further in the seventh game—he would end the match with 39—as shots went long or into the net. Three deuces, a shocking double fault, and it was break point. Djokovic pulled off a perfect pass to go 4-3 up. It was all he needed.
The super-calm Serb served it out, 6-4, for this most auspicious of titles, and claim what no other player has done—the ninth and final link in the chain of Masters.
He jumped, raised his hand to the heavens, and went to embrace the team with whom he reunited this spring after his long months in the shadows last season. It has been a tough road back from injury, from a loss of confidence, from instability in his coaching set-up, but the rewards have begun to flow: first Wimbledon, now Cincinnati and that unique golden prize.
Federer had the chance to be the first to acknowledge it:
“Congratulations, Novak, on writing history today, amazing effort not just this week, not just today, but your whole career. To get to this point is an amazing achievement. You should be very proud.”
He will be, when he has time to reflect. But for now, he had some very long queues of fans waiting for autographs, selfies, and a shake of the hand. It will surely be a long, happy night for Djokovic in Cincinnati.