Indian Wells 2015: Novak Djokovic survives Federer surge to win 50th title

World No1 Novak Djokovic beats Roger Federer 6-3 6-7 (5-7) 6-2 to win the Indian Wells title

The ATP preview to the Indian Wells final was spot-on: ‘The Big Dance’ captured perfectly the quality, charisma and intensity of the rivalry that has grown between the two top men in the world, Novak Djokovic and Roger Federer.

The stakes alone made this replay of last year’s final, their 38th meeting, mouthwatering.

Djokovic was bidding for a 21st Masters title to take him just two shy of Federer’s 23. He was also aiming for his 50th title overall, which would overtake his coach and mentor Boris Becker’s 49. And should he win, Djokovic was destined to overtake that other mighty rival, Rafael Nadal, in the number of weeks he had held the No1 ranking: He would maintain his huge lead at the top for at least another month—all that was required.

Aside from such milestones, Djokovic could equal Federer’s record tally at Indian Wells. Between them, they owned seven titles in this most prestigious of Masters, three and four respectively. Of course Federer had No5 in mind just weeks after winning his seventh title in Dubai against the same man.

For Federer, this was now his 40th Masters final, and he had passed the 50 match-win mark at Indian Wells with his quarter-final victory.

But putting to one side such records, it is the nature of the Federer and Djokovic that has made it one of the most compelling in Open-era tennis, a rivalry that has already stretched through 37 matches and nine years, that has decided Masters titles and the World Tour Finals crown, and only last year determined the Wimbledon title and the No1 ranking.

In sheer numbers, their rivalry trails that between Djokovic and Rafael Nadal—by four—yet it has become, in many eyes, the finest of the match-ups, 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.

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.

That they were both at the top of their game, splitting their last eight matches—five of which went the distance—made it all the more fascinating.

There has, over the years, become another interesting facet to this rivalry: their relationship. For what began as a tense, edgy affair between two men at very different stages in their careers and development—Djokovic was a teenager and Federer the undisputed king of the tour in those early meetings—has undoubtedly matured into something approaching warmth, particularly since Djokovic became a father just months after Federer’s family grew to four children. It is now packed with mutual respect, as their comments ahead of this latest contest testified.

Djokovic: “If I get to play Roger, it’s the ultimate final that I can have. In the last 12 months, he’s been playing some of his best tennis… 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… He’s playing great, there’s no question about it.”

Federer: “I think it’s very exciting for both of us, and also for fans, to see a rematch of the great final from last year… He’s tough, as we know. He barely misses. He moves great. He makes you go for the extra shot. [He’s] one of the great hard court players we have seen in tennis.”

And Federer explained the appeal of their rivalry in Dubai: “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.”

It looked, this time, as though the match may be over rather sooner than last year’s, for Djokovic flew out of the gates to combine some great serving with his renowned defence-turned-offence on return.

He opened with two love holds, almost broke Federer in the fourth game, and finally broke through at the fourth attempt in the sixth with some searing returns of serve that forced errors from the Swiss racket. It was lovely angled passing shot across Federer that took the 4-2 lead, and Djokovic quickly consolidated with another love hold. After just 32 minutes, he had the set, 6-3, and had dropped not a point in 17 first serves.

Federer had made 13 errors to eight winners, in stark contrast to his stats against Milos Raonic the day before. It was not that his first serve let him down but that his high number of second serves was punished, winning just four points from 14 of them.

The slow, high-bouncing conditions made it difficult for Federer to win points with his natural attacking game—from serve-and-volley plays or from chip-and-charge tactics, while Djokovic relished the extra time and height on the ball to fire the ball deep and wide from all parts of the court.

Djokovic broke early in the second set, with Federer forced into errors by the depth and accuracy of the Djokovic baseline game and the variety of his serving. The Serb held, and twice came close to breaking again, but Federer fought, defended, pressed forward again to break back for 4-4.

Now with both playing at the top of their game, each rally became a spectacle, and the packed arena roared on every winning point from Federer, as if demanding a third set. The tie-break featured a dazzling 26-stroke rally on the second point, Djokovic opened a 5-3 lead, Federer closed it and, under intense pressure, Djokovic doubled faulted twice to give Federer set point—and the Swiss took it.

Yet in the third, it was the Serb who kept remarkable focus to hit back at a Federer whose concentration—and perhaps adrenalin level—dropped for a moment.

Djokovic broke straight away, but still Federer was not done: He regained his intensity, and played a remarkable drop-shot winner to earn break point. He could not convert, but he kept up the pressure through four more and 12 minutes to get his break—and a frustrated Djokovic smashed his racket to smithereens.

That, however, proved to release all the tension in Serb’s game. At 2-2 and with two hours on the clock, he pushed to deuce. Minutes later, some cracking returns forced break point, and Federer double faulted. That would prove to be the decisive turning point, and after a quick hold, Djokovic forced a scatter of errors from Federer to break for set, match and his 50th title, 6-2.

It had been stunning, dramatic and exhausting, just as so many of the battles between these two four-time Indian Wells champions. Federer, even in defeat, admitted it was good to be part of: “I hope we can play some more this year: it would be a pleasure.”

Djokovic concurred: “Tough luck, Roger. You had a great tournament, you are a great champion. It’s always a pleasure playing against you, and I also hope we play again this year.”

So the rankings will remain unchanged as these two score the same result as 12 months ago. Djokovic heads to Miami, where he will hope to defend his title to maintain his huge margin at the top. Federer, though, will bypass his quarter-final run there last year to take his children on a promised ski trip.

Two fathers, then, at very different stages in their family life, yet together they command the rankings, push each other to the limits, and constantly thrill tennis fans. It won’t be in Miami, but with luck they will contest another title very soon.

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