A Novak Djokovic and Roger Federer clash is a tennis fan’s delight, a dream come true for punters and indeed a hashtag moment for social media. And when the two play in a Grand Slam, it is usually for the title.
But when the two meet for their 45th match on Thursday, world number one Djokovic and 17-time Grand Slam champion Federer won’t be contesting for silverware. Thanks to the Swiss’ number three seeding, he will be playing the Serb a round earlier than expected for a place in the Australian Open final.
Since the start of 2015, the two have clashed eight times, with Djokovic leading that miniseries 5-3. Federer vs Djokovic is now the ATP’s second-most contested rivalry (Djokovic and Spaniard Rafael Nadal lead that statistic, with 47 matches played thus far). But Federer-Djokovic does come out on top in a more important category – it has been the most relevant, competitive rivalry at the top of the men’s game in recent years.
Federer recorded wins in the finals of Dubai and Cincinnati, and in the round robin stage of the World Tour Finals, while Djokovic won title clashes at Indian Wells, Rome, Wimbledon, the US Open and the World Tour Finals. While the Cincinnati Masters, a title missing from the Serb’s trophy cabinet, is a tournament he dearly wants to win, there’s no doubt the Serb snared the bigger, more important matches last year.
A more troubling statistic for Federer is that he’s lost three of his last four best-of-five-set matches against Djokovic. The last win came three-and-a-half years ago, in the semifinals of Wimbledon in 2012.
On the form displayed thus far in Melbourne, the Swiss does hold a slight edge, though. Federer has played 16 sets in five rounds, dropping one to Bulgarian Grigor Dimitrov in the third round, and has spent a total of nine hours and nine minutes on court. Djokovic, on the other hand, was stretched to five sets by plucky Frenchman Gilles Simon in the fourth round, throwing in a personal record of 100 unforced errors in a scratchy, far-from-convincing performance. The Serb has spent 12 hours, 35 minutes on court for his 17 sets.
The flip side of this could be that Djokovic may have gotten his letdown out of the way, while Federer, although tested against Dimitrov, hasn’t had that one really difficult match yet.
Yet, this is a pattern that’s becoming all too familiar with the Swiss. He breezes through the early rounds of a Slam in typically quick, efficient fashion, fine-tuning all the aspects of his game, especially his serve, and boosting his title chances in the process. Fuelled by a near-perfect serving day, the Swiss put on a display of virtually unplayable tennis that was reminiscent of 2006, in his semifinal against Andy Murray at Wimbledon last year. But against Djokovic, at the final hurdle, his serve faltered.
It was a similar story in the US Open final.
Which is why the Federer serve vs the Djokovic return is going to be key once again on Thursday. Such is the quality of the Serb’s consistently deep, probing returns, that anything less than a high percentage of first serves and the Swiss will be in trouble, on the defensive rather than imposing his attacking game.
Federer has never won a best-of-five clash against Djokovic after losing the first set, making a good start all the more crucial for him.
“I think the worst thing for a tennis player or any athlete is unpredictability, not knowing what is coming next. That is what Roger possesses, the variety in his game. So that’s what plays with your mind. What is coming next? Will he do this SABR thing?” said the Serb in a recent press conference, referring to what is now known as the Sneak Attack by Roger, in which the Swiss charges the net on his opponent’s second serve.
A surprise foray to the net or an unexpected use of the SABR couldn’t hurt Federer’s chances, if nothing more than to plant doubt in Djokovic’s mind.
For Djokovic, there’s little else to do but continue in the same vein as he did in his semifinal against Kei Nishikori. The Serb’s ability to bend but not break continues to remain his strongest asset.
The match is the first of the night session on Rod Laver Arena, which means the court will play relatively slower, assisting Djokovic. A forecast of rainy, overcast conditions could lead to a closure of the roof, like it did on Wednesday, aiding the Serb even more.
There is a lot at stake for both players, obviously. For Federer, this is one more chance to top off his remarkable return from an injury-filled 2013 season and get that elusive 18th major.
For Djokovic, it is a chance to take yet another step closer to Nadal and Federer in the Grand Slam count, with major No 11 and Australian Open No 6. A win would also give him a lead in his head-to-head over all his fellow members of the Big Four – Federer, Nadal and Murray -- for the first time in his career.
Federer-Djokovic Part 45 promises to be a high-quality affair.