September 12, 2015
Yet another Grand Slam final for Novak Djokovic, completing the calendar quartet, and his eleventh successive final in all tournaments. That kind of consistency puts pressure on his opponents – even Roger Federer.
Both men sailed through their semi-finals with almost outrageous ease. After losing to Stan Wawrinka at the French Open, no one expected Federer to subdue his compatriot quite so efficiently, not even on a hard court.
The scoreline of 6-4, 6-3, 6-1 made the victory sound straight-forward – and in all honesty it was, taking just 92 minutes.
Federer has won 18 successive sets at Flushing Meadows and 28 in all since losing the Wimbledon final to Djokovic.
But remember how Federer allowed the level of his game to dip against Djokovic on Wimbledon’s Centre Court a few short months ago? His backhand was suddenly shaky, his serve less convincing than before.
The key to Federer beating Djokovic to secure a record 18th Grand Slam lies in his own head. Novak disposed of Marin Cilic 6-0, 6-1, 6-2 in their semi-final and that match took even less time – 85 minutes. Cilic was never allowed to gain a foothold and Djokovic conserved his energy with ruthless efficiency.
So far, Federer had done the same. But he knows the final against Djokovic will be a different challenge entirely. Federer said: ‘Novak’s the best mover on hard courts, he doesn’t give you anything, he’s tough mentally but I like that challenge and I’ll be ready for it.’
In truth, Federer didn’t look ready for that challenge at Wimbledon, not mentally anyway. Despite all his experience, despite being arguably the greatest tennis player of all time, Federer tightened on Centre Court and his incredible technique suffered.
He will have to recognise and address that shortcoming if he wants to perform to his true potential in the US Open final. Crazy as it may sound in a man who has more reason to feel confident than just about anyone alive, Federer has to stop worrying about what Djokovic can do and focus on his own strengths.
Yes, the ball will come back more often when you serve at Novak. Accept that and maintain your level. Yes, it takes an extraordinary winner to breach those famed Djokovic defences from the baseline. So mix it up to seize the initiative at the net, build towards a swift winner if you can, but choose your moment of approach carefully. Keep Novak guessing and don’t rely on the near-impossible – victory over Novak through marathon baseline rallies alone. Above all, Roger has to hold his nerve this time under fire, so that his technique doesn’t suffer under extreme pressure when the chips are down.
Of course, in a sense it is ridiculous to attempt to find solutions for the master, and it is all so much is more easily said than done against the might of Djokovic. But Federer got his tactics wrong at Wimbledon; and even all-time-greats are fallible.
Will Federer win this time around? You still have to go for Djokovic, the world number one and the man attempting to take his third Slam of the year. But it will be a close-run thing.
And in the women’s final, the drama of Roberta Vinci’s victory over Serena Williams may be too much to repeat so soon. So Flavia Pennetta must start favourite there.
But if both finals unfold the other way, what a climax we will have to another amazing tournament. Federer, the world’s most popular player, and Vinci, the new darling of Flushing Meadows, both lifting titles? Could it be?
The world can dream, and this glorious sport of tennis is always full of surprises.