October 11, 2014
Sometimes tennis is almost too beautiful for words. Simply awe-inspiring…deliciously surprising…nothing can do justice to what just happened in Shanghai. Could Roger Federer even end the year as world number one? After this, anything seems possible. We thought we’d seen perfection from Novak Djokovic in the Far East. Then Roger Federer reminded us what sporting perfection really means. A first set gifted from the tennis gods left us gasping. Then Federer’s strength of nerve and tactical genius were enough to snuff out Novak’s attempted comeback. In a match which often evoked memories of their wonderful final at Wimbledon earlier this year, Roger Federer took revenge for that reverse to win 6-4, 6-4. Once again he became the masterful teacher, with Djokovic little more than a dumb-struck pupil, as if still dreaming of attaining such brilliance. No wonder Federer was prepared to entertain the thought that he had just played his best match of the year. ‘Possibly, yes,’ he said. ‘It was a bit over one-and-a-half hours of great quality tennis. Not to be broken by Novak under these circumstances…I’m unbelievably happy.’ When Federer set up a third match point in the second set, there was no mistake. His anticipation and touch at the net were impeccable. It was over, though only the ruthless Roger probably wanted it to be so. Federer reflected: ‘I served well, moved up to the net well, played well at the net too. I don’t think Novak played badly.’ To say that Federer served well was a massive understatement. Once he had secured an all-important early break, Federer never looked like surrendering his lead. An ace-game in 47 seconds left the Shanghai crowd shrieking their admiration. Federer served a fifth ace to close out the set, having put 76 per cent of his first serves exactly where he wanted them, and won 72 per cent of those points as a result. There seemed to be some needle between the players as a Djokovic body-shot didn’t go down well with his illustrious opponent. If that gave this sparkling match an added edge, no one could have complained. Roger later insisted it wasn’t so. ‘I deserved to be hit!’ he laughed, lamenting a rare failure at the net. The Shanghai crowd and millions of enthralled viewers around the world knew they were being treated to something truly special, a level of tennis so high that you wondered whether future players will ever be able to emulate this golden era. The Serb had been undefeated in 28 matches and four years in China. When he beat Tomas Berdych in Beijing last week, Novak claimed his tennis had been sent from above. But no one could have coped with this superhuman display from Roger, who might have won even more emphatically. Already 1-3 down, Djokovic faced four break points and somehow scrambled to save them all, reminding us why he is world number one. If one point almost changed it all, that came at 30-40 when Novak pulled off an impossible defensive reach to stay alive. Even that piece of resistance wasn’t enough to turn the tide for long. Federer had broken in the very first game of that second set and looked unstoppable. But you can never write Novak off and the Swiss genius knew he had to maintain constant pressure to keep the younger man at bay. Djokovic trailed 40-0 on the Federer serve and was 4-3 behind in the second. Somehow Novak clawed his way back into the game and knocked on the door once more. But Federer kept slamming the door shut and held out to go 5-3 ahead. “Roger, Roger” chanted the ecstatic crowd, knowing they were witnessing tennis they would never, ever forget. Djokovic saved two match points in the very next game, the first with a solid backhand volley and the second with an ace. But he couldn’t escape for long, not with Federer in this kind of form. And as soon as it was over, we dared to dream something which seemed impossible last year. With Djokovic soon to become a father for the first time, can Federer take his chance and focus sufficiently to steal Novak’s world crown? The 33-year-old says he doesn’t need that sort of motivation as he steps out on Sunday to face Gilles Simon in the Shanghai Masters Final. Simon will be no pushover after he saw off Feliciano Lopez 6-2, 7-6 without facing a break point. It is the Frenchan’s first Masters-level final for six years and he will be hungry for success. But then again, so will Federer – who won’t let the battle for world domination enter his head. Isn’t it a priority for him? ‘Not really,’ he explained. ‘I’m here to win a tournament, I’ve lost more finals than I’ve won recently.’ For such a perfectionist, that hurts. ‘Back in the day I was on a winning streak of 24 finals, it seemed so easy. So I’m not going to get ahead of myself, but I’m happy, I just came from vacation and I’m feeling fresh right now.’ Amazing what a few days off can do. This victory seemed so easy too, just like all those wins “back in the day”. For anyone to look so comfortable against a man with Novak’s track record in the Far East is simply incredible. Whatever next? We can’t wait for the final and the rest of the tennis year. Above all, we can’t wait for Wimbledon 2015.