January 28, 2016
You had to see this to believe it. Even Roger Federer in his prime would have struggled to cope with such relentless, ruthless precision from an opponent in the opening two sets. How does Novak Djokovic do it?
Whatever the answer is, tennis seems to have found a man more excellent than any before, someone who doesn’t look like faltering any time soon. To beat an in-form Federer 6-1, 6-2, 3-6, 6-3 takes some rare mastery.
With the roof open Djokovic was first to the punch, quickest out of the blocks, determined to seize the initiative. With the roof closed, he remained relaxed under pressure, took his chances and showed the mental strength to end the contest.
Yes, Federer had come back to take the third, ever the fighter. And we’re surely all pleased that he did, for no one wanted to see him humiliated.
But the contest was effectively over by then, because no one really believed that Federer could win from two sets down at the age of 34. By then he was playing for pride – and thankfully he salvaged plenty. Yet there was only ever going to be one winner – even after the rain came down and the players were forced to refocus.
Novak may not be the most beautiful player the sport has ever seen. And some have even tried to dismiss his brilliance as mechanical. Some slick machine! Finely tuned, purring, taunting all others out on the road. The odd splutter gives false hope to lesser models, before he finds a gear the rest don’t have.
We won’t be fooled again. Djokovic sometimes has a wobble in a relatively early round of a Slam, and we all start to think he is showing normal human weakness at last. But that so-called vulnerability just seems to be Djokovic taking his foot off the gas, pacing himself, saving his most devastating tennis for when it really matters.
Even the big boys fear him now. Even Federer. Yes, though it will pain most neutrals to admit it, the once-imperious Swiss is Novak’s psychological inferior these days in purely sporting terms. Now it is Djokovic who leads the head-to-head count, 23-22. And who can stop him from winning yet another Australian Open?
From the first moment, Novak showed who is boss these days when the greats lock horns. Or rather Federer did. Roger won the toss and elected to receive. Who does that unless they are already concerned?
If Federer hoped he could break Djokovic straight away, he couldn’t have been more wrong. The Serb held to love and then set about breaking Federer instead. Not just his serve, but almost his very spirit, as he won the first set 6-1 and came close to repeating the feat.
Federer saved set points to take one more game in the second set, but it didn’t seem to matter. The great Federer, humbled by the punishing consistency of his opponent and perhaps by time itself, was facing an uphill battle by then, whatever old magic he could still conjure.
Until then, the net-rushing had left Federer stranded. Attempted winners had become unforced errors. So once again, given the apparent hopelessness of his situation, you had to admire the way Federer fought afresh and found a foothold in a match that had all but passed him by.
Roger closed out that third set at the third time of asking, and doubtless wished he could have tapped into his A-game earlier. But his best tennis hadn’t been there at the start, because Djokovic simply hadn’t allowed it; and besides, Federer had lacked the self-assurance to bring it from the first game.
In the end, all Roger had left was that hard-earned third set, his dignity and his fantastic record, plus the very real achievement of having reached another Grand Slam semi-final.
Novak was always going to close out the match sooner or later, shifting up a gear once more. It’s awesome stuff every time he’s pushed a little, and one day, when Novak’s career is over, we’ll marvel at it even more.
And if Djokovic is head-and-shoulders above the other men right now, Serena Williams remains equally dominant among the women.
Many of us thought she might struggle to win the Australian Open this year. Remember, Serena had imploded horribly at the US Open, almost buckling under the weight of expectation. She had knee problems. She hadn’t played for the best part of four months.
Meanwhile Victoria Azarenka appeared to be enjoying the sort of sparkling form that saw her win in Melbourne two and three years ago. Yet Angelique Kerber took down Azarenka, then went on to defeat Britain’s Johanna Konta in their semi-final 7-5, 6-2.
Serena, however, had already crushed Agnieszka Radwanska 6-0, 6-4, taking the first set in just twenty minutes, a display of raw power that will probably leave Kerber quaking in her boots, even though the German says she has ‘nothing to lose’ in Saturday’s final.
Williams, it seems, is about to equal the feat of another German, Steffi Graf, by winning her 22nd Slam. Historic stuff. And it’s hard to believe that tennis, with all its greats down the ages, has ever seen anything quite as magnificent as Novak Djokovic and Serena Williams.
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