A Federer-Djokovic Two-Parter: What Changed in Five Days?

Yep, Nole did in fact have to choke a bitch.

Head-to-head matchups in tennis can be weird. Sometimes two guys will go months, years even, without playing each other – other times, they’ll play twice in the same week, as was the case with Novak Djokovic and Roger Federer in London. Given the first meeting was a 7-5, 6-2 victory for Federer, it would seem Djokovic would have his work cut out for him if he wished to right the ship on such a short turnaround – but it certainly didn’t seem that way on Sunday.

There’s no point dancing around it: Djokovic obliterated the Swiss Maestro. The 6-3, 6-4 scoreline was as indicative of the competitiveness of a tennis match as it could ever be, as the world number 1 made beating the greatest player the sport has ever seen look as routine as the Guards’ changeover at Buckingham Palace. This was Djokovic at his best, taking all the lessons of last Tuesday’s match and applying them against an opponent who couldn’t reiterate that same form.

So what changed? Perhaps surprisingly given it was played on indoor hard, it was the contrast – both from match-to-match and player-to-player – in return of serve. In Tuesday’s iteration, Federer won an impressive 45% of return points, constantly extending Djokovic’s service games and creating opportunities to take risks and up his aggression. On Sunday, Djokovic served a lot better – particularly on the second serve, where he won an incredible 84% of points, while on the other side, the Serb upped his return points won from 28 to 39%. Combining the two factors meant Federer was forced to play neutral balls that favoured Djokovic’s power from the baseline, so while the match may have been on the former’s preferred surface, it was very much the latter’s preferred style of fight.

However, there’s one other factor that is likely to go unmentioned in most corners, and it’s one that doesn’t exactly favour the ATP’s showcase event. Djokovic was undoubtedly a different man in the final, and this in some part, is intentional. That is not to say he was trying less hard in the first encounter, but the Serb has played a staggering amount of tennis over the past eleven months, and given his advantage over his other round-robin opponents – Kei Nishikori and Tomas Berdych – could plan his week to peak a bit earlier than the relatively well-rested Federer had to. It’s not a concerted effort to play down to his opponent (he certainly couldn’t against Federer anyway) but maybe he trains a little easier coming off that Paris victory just days prior, and at the very least he wouldn’t feel the same sense of urgency.

It’s no accident then that the Djokovic we saw in the final was in supreme form. He’s the best player in the world right now for his approach to the sport as much as his performances in it. Could Federer have repeated his success from a few days earlier? Possibly, but it would have required him to play at his apex, and serve far better than he did. As things stand, it’s hard to see a person you could predict to stop the Serb from winning all four slams next year, but if not the final, the week showed that Federer could very well be the man to stop him. If we learnt anything from the pair’s 43rd and 44th meetings, it’s that we could do with four more.

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