So it all came down to their match against one another, a showdown between the two former champions. The winner would head to the semis; the loser would head home.
It was an all-or-nothing contest, as has so often been the case in their long and illustrious rivalry. Nineteen times they had met in a title bout, and 10 of their last 14 were finals.
But make no mistake, this was just as much a boom or bust moment for the two, who were used to being in London on the final weekend.
Six-time champion Federer has failed to reach the knock-out stage of the season finale only once in 17 appearances, and that was in Shanghai in 2008 when a back injury forced him to have one of the only on-court medical time-outs in his 20-year career.
Five-time champion Djokovic has not fallen short of the final in his last six appearances, and he beat Federer in both finals they contested here. Indeed Djokovic had opened a head-to-head lead over the Swiss of 26-22, a gap consolidated by their five most recent encounters, won by Djokovic, and including perhaps the most bruising loss for Federer, this year’s Wimbledon final.
In that match, Djokovic saved two Championship points on his way to the title in the longest Wimbledon final, 13-12 in a first-time final-set tie-break.
Federer in particular has been asked countless times since that loss in July about the scar-tissue that remains. He has said in reply, countless times, that he got over it quickly. Of course, it came up again in the pre-tournament press conference at the O2, with Federer and Djokovic actually sitting alongside one another.
The Swiss asserted:
“Honestly I’m very excited to be playing against Novak again here. Happy to be in his group, and Wimbledon was epic… that was a special match for both of us. Maybe a bit more for him than for me, but that’s OK, I’ve moved on a long time ago.”
And before the match, he restated:
“It took maybe a few days, couple weeks at most to get over the Wimbledon loss… I’m excited playing against him. I’m excited to see how he’s going to play tonight, as well. But other than that, I think I need to focus on my game, what I do best. And regardless of what I need to do, I just hope I play well.”
And after watching Djokovic’s stunning three-set match against Thiem, a two-hour-50-minute thriller won by the Austrian, it would have been interesting to know what Federer had made of it. For it surely only emphasised what a formidable, steely player is the Serb, who almost withstood an exhilarating charge by Thiem, which Djokovic described thus:
“[Dominic] was unbelievable, and in some stages it was just incredible that he was just literally smacking the ball as hard as he can and it was going in.”
Federer would have to find his best, and sustain it, if he was to deny Djokovic this time, but the Serb had one more incentive, as if he needed one against one of his greatest adversaries. He had to get all the way to the title match if he was to regain the No1 ranking for the year’s end.
But Federer, on this occasion, did find his best, in an hour and a quarter of stunning, pin-point tennis. It would be almost fault free, even though he had, tactically, determined to grip the baseline and counter Djokovic with flat pace to the lines, on serve, on backhand and forehand. Yes, he chased to net on occasion, but was surely banking on the laser-like passing of Djokovic when he did.
The Swiss had a break chance in the very first game, and Djokovic held it off, but not for the entire set did the Serb work a break point in return. Federer’s serving was as good as it has ever been, 20-23 in the set, and he broke in the third game—enough to seal the first set, 6-4.
Federer had made just one unforced error in the 55 points played, and he carried on, cool as a cucumber to a raucous soundtrack of fans who could barely contain themselves. But the Swiss could not make the most of two immediate break chances. Instead, he had to fend off a break point against him in the fourth game. He aced to hold.
He then turned on the heat again in the fifth game for 0-40, and broke at the second time of asking. He would then drop only three more points on serve, and hold to love with his 12th ace of the match, 5-3. Djokovic could not read the Swiss serve and could not penetrate some extraordinary defensive running from Federer. He was broken to love for the match, 6-3.
Now, for the first time in the match, the Swiss showed his emotion: He leapt into the air, punched his fist, saluted the crowd. This was, clearly, a sweet victory, and earned with one of his best performances in a while. Five unforced errors to 25 winners do not lie.
He could not stop smiling, and who could blame him: He was into a 16th semi-final, and hopefully would not hear another question about that Wimbledon final. He said:
“Great atmosphere, a great opponent here in London, definitely incredibly special. Just a night I enjoyed from the beginning. I played incredible, and I knew I had to because that’s what Novak does, and I was able to produce. So it was definitely magical. You guys are super-special.
“There was a lot riding on the match. I think I served great, had great anticipation, a clear game plan, and it worked to perfection tonight, and hopefully not the last time against Novak.”
Djokovic was understandably disappointed with his performance, but tipped his hat to Federer:
“It was not much that I did right this match, to be honest. I mean, realistically he was better player in all aspects and absolutely deserved to win. He served great, moved well, returned my serve very well. From his end, I think he did everything right.”
He will not have long to rest and recuperate after a successful if punishing end to the main calendar. After all, he won the Paris Masters last week. Instead, he heads to Madrid to join fellow Serbs in the new-format Davis Cup.
And Federer will have to wait for another day’s play at the O2 to find out who he faces next.
In the other round-robin match in this group, Matteo Berrettini became the first Italian to earn a singles win in the tournament’s history when he beat Thiem, 7-6(3), 6-3.
The Austrian, however, had already topped the group following his wins over Djokovic and Federer.
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BIOGRAPHY: Ethan Hazard
BIOGRAPHY: Daniel Sturridge