November 15, 2014
Roger Federer saved four match points to set up the dream year-end final against Novak Djokovic. It will be Federer’s ninth – and if the 2014 finale is half as good as the sensational 4-6, 7-5, 7-6 (8-6) all-Swiss semi-final late on Saturday night, it will be a treat indeed.
Djokovic vowed not to let the rowdy London crowd distract him during Sunday’s final after a controversial incident against Kei Nishikori on Saturday. The world number one had polished off the first set 6-1 in just 23 minutes. When he broke in the very first game of the second set, the match looked destined for a swift ending. But Japan’s hero kept fighting until he was on the verge of breaking straight back. Some of the O2 crowd then cheered when Djokovic double-faulted to give Nishikori fresh hope.
Novak reacted angrily to the applause, which wasn’t so much for his mistake as the prospect of a longer and more competitive contest. Nevertheless Djokovic seemed shocked that a London crowd could appear so unsporting, since such extreme reactions to double faults are practically unheard of at Wimbledon.
Later Djokovic suggested that his own reaction had cost him the second set, which went emphatically to Nishikori 6-3, even though the underdog needed medical attention to his wrist.
With a win-lose ratio of 21-2 for deciding sets this year, it looked as though Nishikori could pull off a shock, particularly after he went 0-30 ahead in Novak’s opening service game in the third. A ridiculously wayward Djokovic forehand gave Kei two break points at 15-40. That’s where the match turned. Nishikori came up with two unforced errors to let Djokovic off the hook – and the Serb never looked back.
An incredible cross-court forehand set up match point. And ironically it was a Nishikori double fault that secured Novak a “bagel” final set of 6-0.
Asked if he could understand the crowd reaction on his own double fault, a triumphant Djokovic still seemed unusually edgy but was clever enough to blame himself above all. ‘On one hand yes on the other hand no’ he offered. ‘It’s sport, it’s a match, they want to see more tennis. But I made a mistake where I let my emotions go and I lost concentration. That’s totally my fault and it mustn’t happen tomorrow.’
In a way it was surprising that Djokovic seemed quite so disgusted, given that such incidents aren’t unusual at the US Open in Flushing Meadows, for example.
Stan Wawrinka had a similar, if slightly less severe meltdown moment a few hours later, when a fan shouted something at him just before he served for the first set against Roger Federer in the evening semi-final. Stan The Man complained to the umpire before recapturing enough composure to serve out the set 6-4. It was no more than he deserved after breaking Federer twice. Those were the first occasions the great man had been broken all week. And although he retrieved one of those breaks, he couldn’t turn the tide before the set was lost.
Interestingly, Wawrinka has also been a victim of rowdy behaviour in New York in recent times. But the intense atmosphere of an indoor arena seems to magnify the impact of crowd reaction in the minds of the protagonists. Some would say it all adds to the gladiatorial feel of a tremendous occasion. Others believe that spectators should be better behaved. But when you have 20,000 passionate supporters under one roof, you are always going to get one or two less respectful characters, who are determined to cross the line. Maybe the players should be better prepared for the unexpected from the fans, who pay their money and want to express themselves in any way they see fit. Right or wrong, it certainly added to the drama on semi-finals day.
Federer squandered three break points that would have put him 4-2 ahead in the second set as he struggled again to cope with the punching power in Wawrinka’s shots. The seventh game was a slugging contest so spectacular that the crowd roared their appreciation after every point. Federer came through to keep the set on serve and it stayed that way until Wawrinka blinked first, while serving at 5-6. Stan couldn’t cope with Roger’s improvisation and wasted the chances he had. The paying customers almost took the roof off as Federer took the set 7-5.
There was controversy at the start of the final set when Federer dropped his serve, partly because he didn’t hear a ridiculous overrule of an “out” call by the umpire. It was too late to challenge by the time Roger realised what had happened and although he remonstrated angrily, he was off to the worst possible start. Wawrinka consolidated at 2-0 and Roger was in trouble as the decider progressed with no break-back. At 2-4 and 0-30, Federer had a mountain to climb. Yet he held serve and even had break points for 4-4. It wasn’t to be and Wawrinka held his nerve to go 5-3 ahead.
Back came Federer again and saved three match points to level at 5-5. The O2 Arena’s enthusiastic thousands were ecstatic with all the incredible twists and turns they had seen. Federer had to save two break points in the very next game but dug deep to edge ahead for the first time in the match. He was two points from victory but Wawrinka summoned reserves of his own to force a deciding tie-break.
Wawrinka had a fourth match point at 6-5 in the tie-break. But it was Federer who took his very first chance to take a sensational match with a killer volley.
Federer admitted: ‘I was very lucky tonight, Stan did all the right things but I saved a lot of match points in the last few months. I did it one more time. Novak is playing fantastic tennis but I’m looking forward to playing him. It’s going to be tough but I’ll give it a shot.’
With so little recovery time in comparison to Djokovic, Federer starts the rank outsider. But the world’s most popular tennis player will give it everything against the world’s best tennis payer. And London will feel lucky to host the perfect climax to a wonderful year.