Merely the Best

Federer d. Djokovic, 6/4 3/6 6/1

There are many ways to analyse a tennis match, most of them wrong.

One of the best, clear in hindsight but typically missed as it occurs, is the Change of Momentum. A desperate winner might rock an opponent back on their heels, generating a flurry of errors. A stray double-fault can blossom into a serious affliction of the yips. With few exceptions, these trends only become clear once they’re trending, or even ending, but never when they start. The one exception is the 120-second break at the end of each set. Few other moments in a tennis match stop momentum as dead.

It was certainly the most curious thing about Federer and Djokovic’s second to last meeting, the highly-dramatic but otherwise somewhat-overrated semifinal at the US Open, where Federer’s form lurched radically from set to set. It was clear again last night. The two played a tight first set, which the slightly stronger player (Federer) won. Then, as he had the day before against Roddick, the Swiss came out flat in the second set, and was immediately broken. He ended up losing it 6/3, though it wasn’t as close as that. Then came another sit-down, and this time it was Djokovic’s turn to ratchet down the intensity. He went from capturing the second set comfortably, to hardly being able to find the court. Federer lifted, and that was that: 6/1. Game, set, title. Three discreet sets, each apparently cropped from different matches between different men. I have no clear explanation.

Sometimes a subtle alteration can yield immediate and clear results, as when Rafael Nadal rotated his service grip by a few degrees in the week before the US Open, and then served his way to a career Grand Slam. Sometimes the changes are more subtle, discernible only to the most committed and seasoned onlookers. Sometimes the effects are so subtle that there appears to be no impact whatsoever. I like to think I’m a pretty committed and seasoned onlooker, but I confess I searched in vain for any of that patented new aggression Paul Annacone has apparently injected into Roger Federer’s game. He rushed the net maybe six times, and got passed or fluffed the volley almost without fail (or with fail, as the case may be). I think he went big on one second serve, and missed it. Perhaps he came over more backhand returns? Certainly more than against Roddick in the semifinal, but regardless of the universally cherished belief to the contrary, he never devolved into a chip-return-merchant a la Sampras.

For all that, there was no shortage of the old Federer aggression, and he did actually beat an in-form Djokovic in the Basel final, romping away 6/1 in the final set, and avenging his loss at the same stage 12 months ago. With or without Annacone, Federer maintains a pretty attacking disposition, and his relentless game clearly poses severe problems for Djokovic. As in Shanghai (albeit not so dramatically), Djokovic came into the match in excellent touch, and left looking frankly unravelled. In all the talk of decline and what-not, Federer remains one of the finest players to ever pick up a racquet. Fans, commentators, and sundry hangers-on may forget that, but Novak Djokovic clearly hasn’t.

Federer has now recaptured the ATP event that means the most to him (possibly excluding the Masters Cup / Tour Final). Incredibly, Basel is the ninth tournament that Federer has won at least four times. As stats go, it’s pretty obscure, but also pretty impressive. It was his fourth title for the year (his second in a row), and his 65th overall, moving him clear of Sampras into outright fourth on the all-time list. Lest he feel left out, here’s an obscure-cum-interesting stat for Djokovic: since his first round win in the US Open, the Serb has not dropped a set to anyone not named Federer or Nadal. I wonder just how many weird records there are floating around the men’s tour, all qualified by the line ‘*apart from Federer and Nadal’?

My favourite moment came in the third set: Djokovic is serving at 1/4. Federer has blown a couple of points for a double-break, and gets a look at a third. As he goes to the ballboy for a towel, he asks him something, smiling. The ballboy, petrified with reverence, begins nodding wide-eyed. Federer hands him back the towel, and walks over to take up his return stance with a grin. I wonder what he said, but I suspect it was something along the lines of, “Be nice if I could take one of these, wouldn’t it?”. Or maybe he was asking the kid to choose pizza toppings for after the match. Either way, I’m reminded that Federer was as a ballboy at this very tournament, and of the awe he must have felt for the pros he was on court with. It was nice to see something like this paid forward. As it happened, he did win the very next break point, and then served out his home championship at love.

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