Australian Open 2020

Australian Open 2020: Djokovic beats Federer to reach 100th win over top-five player

Defending champ admitted: “[Federer] was obviously hurt and not close to his best”

Marianne Bevis
By Marianne Bevis
Novak Djokovic
Novak Djokovic (Photo: Marianne Bevis)

The backdrop to the first men’s semi-final at the Australian Open was certainly compelling. World No2 Novak Djokovic played No3 Roger Federer for a 50th time, the second-longest rivalry in men’s tennis.

Djokovic was defending champion with a record seven titles. Federer had six Australian titles. Each was aiming to reach a record eighth final in Melbourne.

Federer, the elder statesman at 38, was again setting records for ‘oldest since’ numbers, but in Djokovic, he faced one of his greatest challengers.

The Serb not only led their head-to-head 26-23, but led their four previous meetings in Melbourne, 3-1—Federer’s first and last win was back in 2007. Djokovic was 10-6 across all Majors, indeed had won their last five Majors dating back to 2012, and led the Swiss 19-18 in their hard-court matches. The Serbian superstar had also won five of their last six tour matches, though Federer’s only win in that span came in their last, at the World Tour Finals.

Not that their round-robin contest in London could erase the memory of a heart-breaking loss in the Wimbledon final just six months ago, where the Swiss held two championship points, on serve, only to lose in a championship tiebreak after five hours.

But such mental scarring would be the least of Federer’s problems as he took to court for a record 15th Australian semi-final, a record 46th Major semi-final.

For while this may be one of Federer’s most successful Majors, he had toiled to get this far. Twice he had come back from the dead: First against John Millman, from 4-8 down in the deciding match-tie-break after more than four hours; then against Tennys Sandgren, saving seven match points after more than three and a half hours. That left Federer almost incapacitated with a leg and groin injury, and he afterwards admitted that it had been a miracle he survived.

The question, then, was would the veteran Swiss even make it to court, for what would be a severe test even for a fully-fit Federer?

After all, Djokovic has made Melbourne Park his own. With a 73-8 record in Australia, he also arrived here with six wins already in the bank from the ATP Cup—and that included wins over world No5 Daniil Medvedev and No1 Rafael Nadal. And in the Australian Open draw, he had dropped only one set—and thus spent two and a half hours less on court than Federer.

Mix into the equation that Nadal’s loss in the semis opened the door for Djokovic to reclaim the No1 ranking come Sunday, and it created a near-perfect storm.

Federer did get the first piece of luck, winning the coin toss, and electing to serve. However, he promptly made errors on the first two points, and another forehand error left the Swiss facing two immediate break points. He saved them with his signature serve and forehand, staved off four deuces, and finally held after a testing six-minute game.

And it continued in Federer’s favour, as a superb backhand down the line broke Djokovic, 2-0. The Serb, though, broke straight back, but Federer had clearly determined that his best chance was to try to win fast with aggressive tactics, and he broke again, in another six-minute-plus tussle, holding for 4-1.

Federer even worked 0-40 for the opportunity to go 5-1 up, striking his 16th winner, but that seemed to galvanise the defending champion, and a couple of untimely errors from Federer ensured a Serbian hold. However, Federer held to love, and eventually stepped up to serve for the set, 5-4.

However, he played a woeful game that began with a double fault and ended with a return into the net to get broken to love. It was uncharacteristically nervy, a symptom perhaps of previous tight losses in tight situations, although Federer was already showing signs of some weakness in his movement to the extreme forehand.

Little wonder, when presented with such a gift, that the Djokovic game took advantage. The Serb held for 5-5, and worked two break points through some long, probing rallies. Federer survived, and it headed to a tie-break, where the stats, once more, did not work in Federer’s favour, despite a 25-5 lead in winners. The last time the Swiss won a tie-break against Djokovic was in Cincinnati in 2015, with the Serb winning all five since.

And so it would transpire again: The pace and accuracy of Djokovic from the baseline showed just why he is so successful in make-or-break situations. With the Federer serve letting him down, it turned into a trouncing, and Djokovic made his infamous return-of-serve winner to take the set, 7-6(1), after an hour.

Federer called for the trainer and took a time-out off court, while Djokovic also took some meds on court. But the Swiss star’s troubles continued early in the second set, though he faced down two break points, 1-1, and another for 3-3. Meanwhile Djokovic held to love, his serve improving all the time—he would go 13/15 in the set.

Federer tried an ultra-aggressive stance against the Djokovic serve, almost a metre inside the baseline on second serve, determined to shorten points, but he had the subdued body language between points of a man who knew this was a lost cause. Serving at 4-5, Djokovic threw in a couple of pitch-perfect short drops to stretch the Swiss body, and got the desired result, the break and set, 6-4.

Compared with the first set, Federer’s serve had lost some of its pace, and he had added only eight winners to the 26 of the opening set, while his error count compared with that of Djokovic told its own story, 10-4.

The Swiss held his own for four games in the third, but Djokovic was controlling the match against a slowing Federer, placing the balls wide, and breaking in the sixth, 4-2. He did not look back, serving out the win, 6-3, to reach a record eighth Australian final.

Perhaps more noteworthy, though, is that this also marked Djokovic’s 100th tour-level match-win against a top-five player, and his 30th top-five win in Majors.

He afterwards admitted:

“The match could have definitely gone a different way if he had used those break points… He got off to a good start and I was pretty nervous at the beginning… I have to say I respect Roger for coming out tonight. He was obviously hurt and not close to his best in terms of movement.

“I have two days of no matches now, which actually is really good. It gives me more time to recuperate and gather all the necessary energy for the final.”

That final will be against either Alexander Zverev or Dominic Thiem: Djokovic has a winning record against both.

Meanwhile, Federer was pragmatic, if disappointed, with his final performance:

“Overall, I guess I’m very happy. I got to be happy with what I achieved… Today was horrible, to go through what I did. Nice entrance, nice send-off, and in between is one to forget, because you know you have a three percent chance to win. You got to go for it… But once you can see it coming, that it’s not going to work anymore, it’s tough… I think I overall played alright. I know I can play better. At the same time, I also know I can play much worse.”

He may, he said, have another scan before heading to his much-heralded “Match for Africa” against Nadal, in his mother’s home of South Africa. Federer concluded:

“But then, of course, you want to be 100 percent to be able to train again, then get ready for hopefully Dubai.”

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