By Roland Garros 2016, Djokovic winning a significant tennis tournament was a foregone conclusion. He won everything, had been basically doing so since 2014. 2015 and 2016 were arguably peak Djoker. Fedal were no where to be found. Murray and Stan made little cameos here and there. The tour belonged to Novak Djokovic.
Then Djokollapse, a storied chapter of this man’s career that began in 2016 and lasted almost two years (even that linked search doesn’t quite cover the Serb’s massive collapse covered here on Mcshow Blog).
2018 will be called, among other things, the return of Novak. He started the year looking awful, evidence that he was still reeling from this complicated fall from grace, but as spring arrived, so did new life in the Serb’s return to form. We recall quickly Rome, Roland Garros, Queen’s and of course Wimbledon, where he won his fourth Gentlemen’s Championship, remembered best, perhaps, for his win over Nadal in an epic SF.
His comeback briefly stumbled in Toronto at the first of two N. American hard court Masters events. The second part of this back-to-back Masters block goes off in Cincinnati. This was the only Masters title to have escaped Djokovic’s trophy case. He’d won at least two of the other eight Masters titles, 8 of 9 going into today’s final, which is already quite the commentary on his versatility (Federer has won 7/9, Nadal 6/9).
Winning today, beating Federer 64 64 is a tremendous accomplishment in and of itself. After what appears more and more to be a calculated loss in Toronto, slowing briefly, slightly the run of his comeback, Djokovic secures his only missing Masters title and beat the seven-time winner Federer convincingly.
He has lost to Federer three times in Cincinnati finals, the last one in 2015 (though Djokovic did prevail over Federer a few weeks later in the U.S. Open final). This tournament is considered sacred Federer real estate. Brad Gilbert today said Djokovic has said himself that beating Roger in Cincinnati is as difficult as beating Rafa at Roland Garros (I’m not buying that, but Novak had certainly seen his share of defeats in Cincinnati, a few of those coming against Roger. I don’t think he’d even won a set against Federer in Cincy, certainly not in the three previous finals in which he lost).
So, this win is huge on a few different fronts. The comeback is back on track; he completes the Masters sequence; he beats Federer in the final; and he clearly (he already was even if he’d lost today) confirms his status as favorite going into NYC in a few week’s for the year’s final major.
As for the match, there’s not too much to discuss other than Novak raised his level (slightly) a notch and Federer’s level continued to creak and sway like an old bridge over the rushing waters of ATP success down below. Federer looked pretty bad today. His ROS continues to absolutely pollute the court, his game, his chances of doing anything of any measure in these matches of consequence.
Novak improved his second serve today compared to his SF v Cilic, but still, Federer was just awful in this part of the match. This helps explain, but complicates this claim: Djokovic’s serve was more effective than Federer’s. If you said that yesterday, that this would be an element of the match, Federer has no shot.
Of course Djokovic is going to get into his opponent’s serve. He broke Federer like clockwork — to secure the first set in quite undramatic and clinical fashion at 3-3 (what a terrible game from Roger) and to ruin Federer’s little comeback in the second by breaking back on Federer who started the second set 2-0 with his own (lone) break of Novak, needing to hold his serve to consolidate to 3-0 and start to develop some confidence and momentum, perhaps turn this little tennis match into a classic Masters final between two of the sport’s all-time greats.
This was anything but a classic. This was simply Novak planting his flag into Federer’s court, whatever confidence Federer still has, announcing to the tennis world far and wide that he has indeed made his return.
But let’s underline part of that last point. Federer’s confidence has been waning for months now. Even his Aussie Open win (a win is a win, mind you) was less than Maestro-like. After consolidating his 20th major, he hunted and landed the honor of becoming the sport’s oldest #1 in the world, in Rotterdam. Since then, he’s been on decline.
I watched Federer play an Indian Wells SF v Coric, in person, that dazzled the tennis imagination. He was brilliant, but needed sheer brilliance just to escape that match. He then had MP on his racket against Del Potro in the final — but could not close the deal (we’ve seen this from Federer before, from many players, but this seemed to really define the decline). Miami was a disaster and the grass courts were really awful but for his first Stuttgart title (where he actually showed some decent form beating Kyrgios — who likes to play Roger — and Raonic); indeed, Halle and Wimbledon really punctured the Maestro’s armor, another MP, another missed opportunity in the QF against Anderson (Novak sure stole that 2018 SW19 thunder).
I hit my ping pong theory around recently. Federer’s flick FH has been around for years, but it’s gotten to be more and more of a troubling development for his tennis; what makes it so troubling is how many tennis and Fed fans mistake it for genius and how much opponents feast on this little morsel.
Like the cases (using some recent examples) of Mayer, Wawrinka and Djokovic in Cincinnati, he was unable to really stay with these boys from the BL. The ground strokes are just not there. Can his form and confidence return ala Melbourne/Miami 2017 in time for NYC? I guess given the lunacy of the ATP over the last few years, anything is possible. But this FH is just a mess.
Here is a short video clip I got from a Fed Fan’s blog (of course, he thinks this is genius work from the Federer FH. He is terribly wrong).
Look how his body is positioned at impact, how little his legs or his torso matter in this shot. There are about three of these ping pong FHs here in this clip. The real excitement for these fans is in the final flick FH pass that gets by Mayer. Look especially at the few previous. These are all top-spin, soft, generally too shallow and more or less invitations for a good opponent to take the upper-hand in the exchange. This is much of Federer’s BL FH game at this point. He was forced out of this to beat Stan. Stan’s FH and BH will obliterate this all-arm and wrist action. Even Djokovic today used those deeper heavier ground strokes that, despite heavy spin, are hit with so much more footwork, body and pace.
This shot really reared its head in London last year at the WTF. I described this shot as Federer sitting on the pot. He’s “squatting” as he strikes the ball (you can see this image as you watch the clip above and other highlights of the Fed Express). This is just poor, and non-threatening BL tennis. Can Federer continue to win and advance deep into draws? Of course. His serve, his BH when he has that going, his ROS, his imposing FH, his S & V (all of these elements were in top form starting in Melbourne 2017).
But, as I said in my Cincy final preview, that ship, I’m afraid, has sailed.
This FH, for me, is a definitive symptom.
In other words, Djokovic, as we said, was the clear favorite today; his win is not surprising at all. Federer needed to be perfect. He wasn’t close.
But Djokovic is close to his 2016 sense of confidence and dominance.