November 15, 2019
Roger Federer produced one of his greatest performances to defeat Novak Djokovic and leave Rafael Nadal as world number one for 2019.
Even the measured Federer described his victory as ‘incredible’ and ‘magical.’
But it was more than that. Mesmerising. Almost superhuman under the circumstances.
He hardly put a foot wrong during this 6-4, 6-3 masterclass. How to match perfect serve with steely nerve. A collector’s item.
But just how good was this from Roger?
Before we get carried away and move into hero-worship mode, let’s acknowledge a few truths.
And get ready because the hero-worship is definitely coming. This was too special for any tennis-loving observer to remain cold and dispassionate for very long.
But as we pointed out in our preview, Djokovic was already looking jaded. That gave Federer more than a glimmer of hope from the start.
We didn’t go along with the army of experts who said it simply had to be Djokovic. They claimed there could only be one winner.
Novak also complained later that he had felt a sharp pain in his elbow at one point. It didn’t last. But maybe it unsettled him just as much as the partisan crowd.
Then, of course, we should remind ourselves that this was only a best-of-three sets showdown. We weren’t talking Grand Slams here.
Yes, this was wonderful London. But it wasn’t Wimbledon. Not the home of tennis, where Roger squandered two match points just a few months ago.
What was the difference?
‘I won the match point,’ smiled Federer. And understandably he celebrated with wild abandon after breaking his losing streak against the Serb.
‘I was able to produce under pressure. I was trying to remind myself to play with less pressure than Novak had and it worked.’
Less pressure because Novak’s bid to end the year as world number one depended on victory.
Now Rafa, Roger and Novak each have five year-end top-spots to their name. The legendary Pete Sampras edges them on six. Another target for the Big Three.
But if we are going to talk about pressure, then we should consider the weight of expectation faced by Roger too.
When 20,000 people turn up to see their hero win. When you are 38 and still expected to beat the most complete player the world has ever seen.
When you carry everyone’s hopes and dreams.
Then there was that four-year losing streak against Novak. Plus the memory of three Wimbledon finals against Djokovic in the last six years. All lost.
His opponent should have had the edge psychologically. But somehow Roger played without fear of failure. Even when he was up against all those painful memories and mounting pressures.
Age. Recent losing record. The crazy expectation from the crowd. Federer didn’t just cope with these potentially troubling elements.
He embraced them.
This is what makes his victory against the odds at the O2 one of his greatest.
How close to perfection was he? Very close. In the first set, Federer made just three unforced errors and landed 83 per cent of his first serves.
How is that even possible in a huge, winner-takes-all match like this?
Overall Roger won 81 per cent of his first-serve points. He made only five unforced errors in total.
And he fired twelve fizzing aces against the greatest returner in the world.
There was one anxious phase in the second set when Djokovic had a breakpoint to go 3-1 ahead. Federer conjured a crushing forehand into the corner to resume control.
His footwork and balance to pull off that shot simply defied the years.
‘I stayed calm. I played great. Couldn’t be more happy right now,’ he said.
Reflecting early on this stunning victory, Roger said: ‘Hopefully not for the last time against Novak. But if it is, then it was all worth it.’
Just consider that for a moment. All those heartbreaking moments. Worth it. For the joyous intensity of this winning feeling.
This is how the mind of a great sportsman works. Quite possibly the greatest sportsman of them all.
This is why Roger Federer’s simple-sounding win over Novak Djokovic at the O2 was one of the greatest of his entire career.