Top seed Novak Djokovic of Serbia and second seed Roger Federer of Switzerland will square off for the 42nd time in their career in the final of the US Open on Sunday.
Djokovic, the 2011 US Open champion, is contesting his sixth final in New York, where victory will give him his 10th major title, while Federer is contesting his seventh final at Flushing Meadows and his first since 2009. A win would give the Swiss a record 18th major, a sixth US Open title, and his first Grand Slam since Wimbledon 2012. It would also make him the oldest US Open champion since 35-year-old Ken Rosewall in 1970.
Federer leads the head-to-head of the ATP's second-most contested rivalry -- the first being between Rafael Nadal and Djokovic at 44 matches played -- by 21-20. Djokovic leads 7-6 at the majors and has won the pair's last two Grand Slam finals. But at Flushing Meadows, the Swiss and the Serb's rivalry requires a chapter unto itself.
Sunday's clash will be the pair's sixth meeting at the Open and first championship match since 2007. Federer leads 3-2, but the Serb claimed victory the last two times in New York. Arguably their most memorable encounter was in the 2011 semifinals, a match in which Djokovic hit a blind, no-look forehand return down match point to claim a famous victory from two sets down.
In addition to Djokovic-Stan Wawrinka, Federer-Djokovic has been among the more competitive, enjoyable rivalries in recent seasons. Part of the reason for this is that, unlike Nadal-Djokovic or Djokovic-Andy Murray encounters, Djokovic-Federer involves more of a contrast in playing styles, in a way that isn't unlike, say, Federer-Nadal.
Federer seems to agree. "I don't know how it is for him [Djokovic], but I feel like he doesn't need to adjust his game as much, either. I think it's just a straight shootout, and I think that's the cool thing about our rivalry. It's very athletic," said Federer ahead of his 27th major final.
The SABR (Sneak Attack By Roger) allows Roger Federer to bring in an element of surprise on his second-serve returns. (AFP Photo)
The SABR element
The undercurrents of tension that marked the early stages of this rivalry, such as Federer yelling at Djokovic's box to 'shut up' during the semifinals of the Monte Carlo Masters in 2008, for example, have all but disappeared now, but Djokovic's coach, six-time Grand Slam champion Boris Becker, did stir the pot recently.
At the Cincinnati Masters last month, Federer introduced a new second-serve return dubbed the SABR: Sneak Attack By Roger. The Swiss skipped ahead to the service line on second serves to chip the return and then attack the net. Although meant for practice, the tactic worked well enough for Federer to persist with it, earning him a record seventh title in Cincinnati at the expense of Djokovic.
Becker says the SABR is 'disrespectful' to opponents. "If he would have played a John McEnroe, Jimmy Connors, Ivan Lendl or even me, we would have said 'Roger, in all honesty I like you but I'll go straight at you,'" Becker told Sky Sports. "In my generation guys would not have accepted as it is now. It's almost disrespecting the other guy's serve."
When asked what he thought of Becker's comments, Federer said, "Yeah, no, it's not disrespectful. Pretty simple," adding, for good measure, "I intend to use it some more."
Novak Djokovic was clinical in his 6-0, 6-1, 6-2 demolition of Marin Cilic in the semifinal, avoiding any drama and saving energy before the final. (Reuters Photo)
What must they do to win?
After his loss to Djokovic in the Wimbledon final, Federer next played at Cincinnati and has been in fine form since. His serve has been immaculate -- he has dropped serve just twice in 82 games and is yet to drop a set thus far. Although inconceivable given his opponent is the Serb, a straight-sets victory will make the Swiss the first man in the Open Era to win the US Open without dropping a set.
A dip in Federer's serving level seems almost inevitable. At Wimbledon, he was unable to carry his sublime tennis and near-perfect serving from his semifinal win over Murray through to the final. Djokovic's consistent returning and his ability to bend but not break -- literally as well as figuratively -- had a role to play there.
Federer's serve must be as good as it has been thus far to have a fighting chance against the Serb in a best-of-five-sets match. The Swiss must also persist with SABR. Against Wawrinka, Federer used it thrice in a game, and though he wasn't always successful, the move did rattle his fellow Swiss enough to earn Federer a break of serve.
Although a low-percentage shot, one that makes him look 'stupid' when it fails, as Federer admitted, SABR will help keep the Serb guessing and potentially disrupt his rhythm, an essential element for any baseline player. Against the return of Djokovic, it could prove the difference between a break of serve and a tiebreaker set. Federer has spent about two hours, 30 minutes on court less than Djokovic has, and SABR could also help keep him points further shot.
Djokovic, on his part, doesn't seem too perturbed by the SABR. "[Federer] tried that [tactic] in Cincinnati. It worked a couple of times. It's an exciting shot for him. For the player opposite side of the net, not so much. So I have nothing else to say about that," Djokovic said.
The Serb has dropped two sets on his way to the final, but has done well to bounce back from dips in form during his matches against Spaniards Feliciano Lopez and Roberto Bautista Agut. Against defending champion Marin Cilic in the semifinal, Djokovic came out sharp and focused, claiming the match 6-0, 6-1, 6-2 in a quick one hour, 25 minutes to save his energy for the final.
Tying his rivalry with the Swiss, again, claiming his third major of the season and improving on his poor 1-4 win-loss record in US Open finals will give the Serb plenty of motivation. "I came here with a wish and a mission to reach the finals and fight for the trophy. So I got myself in that position," said Djokovic.
"It's already a great result. But I want to get that final step on Sunday and get my hands on that trophy.
"I'm used to all the expectations and pressure. It's part of what I do."