Tennis

Resurgent Djokovic, battle-worn Federer headline season-ender

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Having dominated the second half of 2018, the World No. 1 is the clear favourite at next week’s ATP Finals. His biggest challenge is likely to come from the Swiss master, who has had to scrap after a great start to the year but can’t be written off

The Roger Federer-Rafael Nadal rivalry is for the romantics. The 2008 Wimbledon final may rank among the greatest matches ever played, but for most part their dynamic has been lopsided, aggravated by Nadal’s 13-2 edge on clay. The Nadal-Djokovic matchup, on the other hand, suffers from the fact that there have been very few occasions when they have played each other at their absolute peaks.

In terms of a contest, nothing works better than the Federer-Djokovic duel. Djokovic leads Federer 25-22, but they are neck and neck across surfaces: it’s 13-13 on hard courts and 4-4 on clay; Djokovic shades it 6-4 indoor and 2-1 on grass. Each has beaten the other at all the four Majors. The Serb’s 7-6(6), 5-7, 7-6(3) win over Federer last week at the Paris Masters was yet another reiteration of the incredibly competitive nature of their matches.

Going into the season-ending ATP Finals, where the two have won 11 of the last 15 editions, Federer’s six to Djokovic’s five, it is their potential clash which will assume primacy. With Djokovic ranked No. 1 and the Swiss No. 3, there was a chance that the two might be drawn into the same group. But with No. 2 Rafael Nadal pulling out because of an abdominal injury, a high-stakes meeting at the business end of the tournament is a possibility.

Even as the numbers prop them up to stand shoulder to shoulder, it’s their complementary styles that enrich the aesthetics of the tie. Federer is creative, Djokovic clinical. Federer is the master of tennis’ first act, the serve, Djokovic of the second, the return. Federer hits with pinpoint accuracy, but Djokovic, at his best, can nullify it like none other.

The pace at which Federer plays and the rhythm he gets into on fast courts have never been to Djokovic’s liking. The conditions at the season finale in London are expected to be slightly heavier, but being indoors, with the elements not playing a part, the setting is ideal for Federer’s precisely directed weaponry. Federer hasn’t quite played well this season and has scraped past many an opponent, but he has reasons to be optimistic.

“Novak is obviously on a roll, you can feel it,” he said after the Paris loss. “He protects his serve very well. I think I did the same and at the end it came down to a few things. Overall I’m happy with my game. It’s better than it was in Basel. I won that tournament, here I played the semis and I needed someone of Novak’s calibre to beat me, so that’s all right.”

However, Djokovic, in the last five months, has shown that he has lost none of his regenerative powers, especially the ability to shrug off defeats which would have devastated others. His rise to the No. 1 spot, after being outside the top 20 as recently as in July, has been meteoric. He is 31-2 since the start of Wimbledon, with two Grand Slam and two Masters 1000 titles and one Masters 1000 runner-up finish.

The 31-year-old looked weary in his defeat to the Russian big-hitter Karen Khachanov in the Paris Masters final, but there is no denying that he is back to his sliding, defending, counter-punching best.

Perhaps the match most indicative of this was his straight-set demolition of Federer on the high-speed courts at the Cincinnati Masters in mid-August. At Cincinnati, Federer hadn’t lost in seven final appearances and hadn’t suffered a service break since 2013. The 37-year-old had even beaten Djokovic there in 2015 using his ultra-aggressive return tactic, cheekily named SABR (Sneak Attack by Roger).

Does all this mean that the other six men in the fray at the Finals will be reduced to supporting actors or is there a pleasant surprise in store like Grigor Dimitrov’s triumph last year? Kevin Anderson and John Isner, who have qualified on the back of their career-best years, are long shots. Kei Nishikori and Marin Cilic, the players expected to follow in the footsteps of Federer, Nadal and Djokovic, have shown no inclination to do so.

Alexander Zverev and Dominic Thiem, from a generation further below, are still developing. In fact, the trio of Cilic, Zverev and Thiem collectively won two matches out of nine at the 2017 Finals and crashed out in the round-robin stage. Bulgarian Dimitrov, who climbed to a career-high No. 3 after winning in London last year, hasn’t even made it, slipping to No. 19 in the world.

Swede Mats Wilander, seven-time Major champion and one of the most serious watchers of modern-day tennis, had an interesting explanation for the lack of breakthrough champions. “What we have found out over the years is that if you have a couple of great players winning a lot of Majors, the generation that follows usually suffers,” he told Sports Illustrated. “These guys sort of delete a lot Grand Slam winners by being a bit better and breaking their confidence.

“I look at this next generation, Nishikori, Raonic and Dimitrov, as the one which came after Pete Sampras and Andre Agassi. There were Lleyton Hewitt, Andy Roddick, Juan Carlos Ferrero and Marat Safin. They all won Slams before Federer [sic: Roddick won his after Federer’s first], but didn’t go very far.

“It seemed to me that Sampras and Agassi had to be out of the picture before Federer gained the confidence to win. He did beat Sampras at Wimbledon early on but he didn’t really win as early as a lot of great champions did. So that’s what we are going to see and a great star will come through.”

Until such a time when a generation racing up in the rear-view mirrors of Nadal, Djokovic and Federer proves itself to be more than just an illusion, the big guns are here to stay.

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Printable version | Jan 29, 2020 2:34:29 PM | https://www.thehindu.com/sport/tennis/resurgent-djokovic-battle-worn-federer-headline-season-ender/article25457718.ece

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