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Djokovic outdoes Federer in London
Here it was — a superb year for men’s tennis encapsulated in one brilliantly played match. Novak Djokovic, already assured of finishing at No. 1 in the world, confirmed that status by holding off the mesmerizing skills of the legend that is Roger Federer to win the final match of the year, and his second ATP World Tour Finals title, 7-6 (6), 7-5.
In the end one point separated these two champions, Djokovic winning 96 points to 95. But tennis is all about the big points and Federer needed either one of the couple he earned himself when he stood at 5-4, 40-15 in the second set. But the forehand let him down, that forehand which can be so smooth and so clinically devastating and yet so inconsistent. On the first set point, the severity of the Djokovic return forced Federer to over-hit the forehand by a matter of inches. On the second he simply made an unforced error. Both mistakes cost him the chance of winning these ATP finals for a seventh time.
It was a contest full of sudden switches in momentum with neither player allowing the other to settle for long into a period of dominance. “There were too many turning points to pinpoint one because any one of them could have thrown the match in a totally different direction,” Federer said afterward before agreeing that it was “a great match.”
Being an old hand at this sort of occasion, Federer started in top gear, winning the first eight points as he broke the Serb to love in the second game. Djokovic looked stiff and a little nervous. But he was soon sufficiently loose to force Federer into a couple of costly errors in the fifth game and then level at 3-3.
A big battle developed for the ninth game and Djokovic, an elastic athlete if ever there was one, reached far to his right to whip back a forehand crosscourt winner. It gave him his third break point and this time Federer couldn’t hold on, netting a forehand.
So Djokovic, who had bloodied his right arm just below the elbow while diving for a backhand on rough court surface, found himself serving for the first set. Set point came and went as the Serb netted a forehand after a short rally and two points later Federer had the break back. Mini breaks were swapped in the tiebreak to leave them level at 5-5 and then Djokovic had his second set point. But Federer read Novak’s forehand volley and turned the reply into a drop shot. But an error on the backhand gave Djokovic a third opportunity and a forehand winner did the job to give him the breaker, 8-6.
Surely he would now have the momentum over a 31-year-old opponent who was playing his third match in three days while Djokovic had enjoyed the Saturday off. Not a bit of it. After a magnificent duel that lasted almost 12 minutes, Federer emerged with a break in the first game and went on to hold through to 5-4. Crucially, the Swiss might have had another break when he reached ad point at 3-1 but another netted forehand gave Djokovic a reprieve he would make the most of a few games later.
The final momentum shift came after Federer had missed those two set points, and when two more forehand errors gave Djokovic match point at 6-5, the world No. 1 came up with a backhand pass down the line on the reach that had No. 1 written all over it.
With so many titles already in the bank, Federer takes his defeats a little more philosophically these days but he admitted to a little frustration. “I have a little regret because I had the lead twice,” he said. “But at the end that doesn’t matter. You have to get over the final line. He was better at that today.”
Federer was clear about what makes the world No. 1 special. “What he does well, even in defense, is that he stays somewhat offensive. That’s what separates him from the rest. He takes time away from you.”
Being special earned Djokovic some extra spending money for Christmas — $1,760,000 to be precise, a maximum prize-money pot because he won all his round-robin matches. But that is not what made Novak most happy as he gloried in a great ending to a year that had started with him winning the Australian Open. Firstly, it was the fact that his father is recovering from a serious illness. Djokovic has been reluctant to talk about these past two weeks but now admitted, “He is still in intensive care but is getting better. I shall see him tomorrow and try and make him smile.”
And secondly, it was the way he played. “Tonight when I needed to come up with some really good shots, really focus and get every ball back in court, I’ve done that. So I cannot be more thrilled than I’m feeling now.”