ATP World Tour Finals 2013: Djokovic takes tight win over Federer
ATP World Tour Finals 2013: Novak Djokovic beats Roger Federer 6-4 6-7 (2-7) 6-2 in his first match at The O2 in London
And so to the second blockbuster of the second day at the ATP World Tour Finals, and for the second time, a replay of a match played just three days before in Paris.
In this case, Roger Federer and Novak Djokovic were also replaying a meeting from exactly a year ago. The two contested the title in London and that, like the Paris semi, had gone the Serb’s way.
In the interim, they had seen contrasting fortunes. While they had been the top two seeds this time last year, the Federer form, compounded by back injury, had seen him win only one title, fall in the second round of Wimbledon and the fourth round of the US Open. He arrived in London ranked, at No7, lower than in any of his 11 previous end-of-season events since his debut in 2002.
But successful rehab, a change in his coaching team and the indoor season had brought a turn-around: The final in Basel, losing a close three-setter to Juan Martin del Potro, and the semis in Paris, having dispatched del Potro in the quarters.
But he recognised that the task ahead was a tough one: “I think everyone is actually in good shape and is playing good tennis. It’s not that someone is coming in and is not playing well… It makes for an interesting tournament. Novak is playing great. He has won every tournament he has played over the last few. He has a lot of confidence and is playing really well.”
He referred to the Serb’s outstanding 17-match streak since losing the final of the US Open to Rafael Nadal, taking titles in Beijing, Shanghai and Paris back-to-back. And he sounded supremely confident, even in the face of Federer’s record in this event.
“It’s the biggest challenge I have to recover, get used to the conditions here and play as well as I did in Bercy. If I do that, then I think I have a good chance against him. It’s a first match for both of us.
“But again, he’s Roger Federer, he’s achieved so much in his career and he’s never to be underestimated as long as he’s playing tennis. He has an incredible quality in his game. Even though his movement may be slower than it used to, he is still striking the ball really well, and if he’s feeling well that day, he can beat anybody.”
There was plenty on the line for both men. Djokovic, for example, needs to win the London title to keep his hopes of the year-end No1 ranking alive. But arguably, Federer had more to prove. Before sealing his qualification in Paris, he had scored only one win over a top-10 player during 2013, and Jo-Wilfried Tsonga did not make the final eight. Federer had only scored a win over one other man in London, and Stan Wawrinka was still ranked No18 back in March.
Federer’s victory over Del Potro in Paris was an important notch in his 2013 record, and his only top-five scalp of the year. He would undoubtedly love to add No2 Djokovic at this early stage in London.
It began with neither giving an inch. Serving was tight, errors were few, and there was certainly some tension in the air. Until 4-4, there was not even a deuce on either side, though there were few love holds either. Every point was eagerly fought, with Federer unusually vocal when his serve hit the mark or he resisted a challenge.
It looked, too, as though he would take first blood, just as he had in Paris. Djokovic, serving first, wobbled in the ninth game, double faulting twice, and a drop winner from Federer earned the first break point of the match. He just missed the line with a forehand and Djokovic survived: Now it was the Serb’s turn to roar.
That adrenalin surge continued into the Federer serve, and the Swiss show his own nerves from the pressure of serving to save the set. He went 15-40 down, boldly came to the net to save one break point but put a forehand long on the second. Djokovic led, 6-4, and the stats showed that his game—more contained and containing—had delivered fewer winners but fewer errors too.
Even so, Federer dug in, fending off early break points, and went on the attack to get a break point chance with a glorious backhand down the line. He withstood some concerted hitting to his backhand wing and finally drew the error and a break.
But in this see-sawing match—now so typical of recent encounters between the two—Federer’s first serve became a liability, dropping to just 50 percent. He found himself at deuce, fought off one break point but double faulted on a second: They were 3-3.
Then it was Djokovic’s serve that fell apart and Federer took full advantage to break to love and serve for the set at 5-4. The fans could hardly contain themselves as this game, too, went to deuce, and Djokovic landed a forehand onto the baseline to break again.
In this extraordinary switching of power, now one serving poorly then the other, Federer had his chance for one more break, but it would go to a tie-break. And with all the errors and tension put to one side, Federer raced through to take it, 7-2, playing some particularly charismatic net points.
But it was back from the sublime to the ridiculous—at least from Federer. He lost his opening serve to love, failed to convert a break chance in the second, but then held to love with an ace. By now, though, Djokovic was clinical in his baseline play, making few errors, biding his time, dropping only two points from 20 on first serve. It was proof of just why the Serb has become such an impregnable force at the top of the game.
He broke again, and although Federer managed one more game, it became a runaway set, 6-2, for Djokovic, with clutch serving at 74 percent compared with Federer’s 50, and a considerably lower error count.
This was not easy tennis to watch, for fans of either man—though the vast majority were behind Federer. With such high stakes between two such closely matched men, it was not surprising that it lacked flow—though not a little dramatic tension.
Federer commented on the errors from both sides:
“Slow here [in London], and it’s the first match, so there’s going to be errors. There’s a lot of neutralizing going on. You have to take a lot of chances to get the ball past the Novak [defence]. Eventually that draws errors out of you.
“I regret not having taken my chances better, maybe played it a bit tougher, a little bit more solid overall. But there was some good tennis out there as well at times. There is something I can definitely take away from this match.”
Djokovic talked of the difficulty of adjusting so quickly, in two days, from Paris to London, but was relatively happy with his performance:
“Roger was fighting through. The second set was very close. I was not satisfied with my serve—I basically played with no first serves the whole second set. But when I needed to in the third, I served well. Just happy that I overcome this challenge… I never expected that I’m going to have an easy straight-sets win. You know, he put up a fight. I’m just glad I managed to go all the way through.”
So the defending champion scored a third straight, albeit third close, win over Federer and keeps alive his hopes of reclaiming the No1 ranking. His fate, though, is in Nadal’s hands. If the Spaniard beats Wawrinka in his next match, the contest is over.
Federer’s fate is to find himself in the disconcerting position of the bottom of the Group B standings, based on the difference in games won and lost. He will therefore hope to shed the cold that he has picked up since arriving in a very wet London before playing Richard Gasquet on Thursday afternoon.