Rolling back the years, Roger Federer put on a masterclass display of tennis, defeating the World #1 Novak Djokovic 63 36 64 63 to reach his record 8th Wimbledon final. He will go for a 17th major, the #1 ranking, and 7th Wimbledon on Sunday against British hope Andy Murray.
One month shy of his 31st birthday, Roger Federer continues to defy the odds. This time, he shocked the world by beating Novak Djokovic (a man who had beaten him in 6 of their last 7 matches) in 4 incredible sets of tennis. Understandably, the World #1 was the favourite heading into the match, but the Swiss Maestro brought his entire grass court repertoire to the party and showed the world why he has still got "it."
The first two sets were surprisingly quick. Both Federer and Djokovic were holding serve with ease in the first five games until Roger broke through in the sixth in the blink of an eye. Fed held twice more to take the set in a too-fast 24 minutes. It was a surprising start because there were very few rallies and both men won many free points off their serve.
In the second, the tide turned straight away as Novak broke in Roger's opening service game and took a 3-0 lead. They traded holds after that and the first two sets were in the book after 54 minutes of play. In the time it usually takes for Rafael Nadal and Novak Djokovic to complete one set, Fed and Nole had completed two, and the match was now best-of-three.
The third set was by far the best set of tennis, from both players. They exchanged service holds in the first five games, and then Roger had two break points that he could not convert on. History would say that those missed opportunities could have been costly for the Swiss Maestro, but this was no ordinary day. At 4-4, Novak held break point. Roger hit a serve up the middle that Novak chipped long. He was thinking that the serve would go out wide to his backhand, and that momentary indecisiveness was all Fed needed to get the point. He then served two balls that Djokovic could not get back, and that was the game. Fed escaped. At 5-4, Roger cranked up the pressure and benefited from a Djokovic overhead error at 15-30. At 30-40, Roger found a way to net, picked off a low volley, and then smashed away an incoming lob to grab the vitally important 3rd set.
As if Djokovic was still thinking about his missed opportunity in the 3rd set, he got broken right away to start the 4th, and Fed opened up a 3-0 lead. The two exchanged holds after that until 5-3 when the moment came for Fed to serve out the match. He had not been truly tested on serve until that point in the 4th set. Djokovic got it to 30-30, but Roger, with his clutch serving, hit two unreturned serves to pull off the victory in two hours and nineteen minutes.
Why Roger Won:
As I wrote in my mini-preview of the Federer/Djokovic clash, Roger had to serve well, hit with plenty of variety, and stay mentally focused the entire match if he wanted to have any chance of coming away with the victory. In the end, he did all three things incredibly well, and then some!
To put it simply, Mr Federer served about as well as he could. Djokovic is the best returner in the game, and nothing but his best serving effort was going to get the job done. Thankfully for him, his serve was firing on all cylinders. He served at 64% and won 75% of those first serve points. But the more telling stat was his 2nd serve points won - an outstanding 72%. Considering who he was playing, that is a remarkable number.
With Roger winning so many points off his 2nd serve, it allowed him to go for more on his first serve (he averaged 118 mph and his fastest was 128 mph), knowing that he had a very good 2nd serve to rely on (he was averaging 102 mph on it, an amazing number). The placement of his 2nd serve was key to his success. Djokovic has an amazing wing span on the return, so Roger started hitting body serves to get the Serb out of his lethal rhythm. This tactic paid off on the big points in which he was forced to hit second serves.
Federer hit 12 aces to 0 double faults, which is incredibly solid considering how big he was going on the second serve. Overall, it was definitely one of the best serving performances of Roger's career considering he was playing one of the greatest returners of all-time in Djokovic.
In the first two sets, there were not many baseline rallies as both men were winning the majority of the points off their serve. In the second set, Novak got more Federer serves into play and started to dictate the rallies more and more. In the crucial 3rd set, Roger changed it up a bit from a tactical standpoint. He started to slice more backhands cross-court to Djokovic's backhand, making the Serb hit up on the ball and impart more spin on it than he would like to. This, in turn, allowed Roger to be more aggressive on his forehand and backhand when the time came to plow into the ball at breakneck speed. It also caused more errors for Djokovic as he was unable to get into any sort of rhythm from the baseline, where he becomes lethal.
The other tactic that won Roger the match was the insistence of the Swiss to hit forehand to forehand rallies. Early on in the match, Djokovic slipped a few times out wide on the slick grass to his forehand side. Roger recognized this, and started pulverizing the ball cross-court, using angle and spin whenever possible. He also threw the tactic of hitting down-the-line running forehands out the window (for the most part) and focused on crushing them back to Novak's forehand side. This strategy paid off very nicely, as is one of the reasons why Roger was able to play successfully from the baseline.
To beat Djokovic, Roger would need to stay in the moment and remain focused throughout the entirety of the match. That is exactly what he did. The first two sets went by so fast that it was possible for Roger to start going outside his comfort zone, but he did not; he remained sharp and even rose the level of his play to match the barrage of assaults Djokovic was throwing at him in the second set.
In the third set, he did not let not getting the break at 3-2 harm his mentality. He stayed strong and did what he had to do until he was able to do until he found an opening in which to strike (at 5-4 to break to win the set). In the fourth, he did not let down as he has been sometimes known to do (US Open 2010 and 2011 ring any bells?), and even when he had a break lead he was wary of a tired-looking Djokovic and kept his foot on the gas. And yes, this time Roger closed out the final game in style, albeit with a little bit of drama.
In my opinion, the match was very similar to the Federer/Djokovic semifinal in the 2008 US Open and the Wimbledon 2006 final against Nadal; I think they are similar for two different reasons. My comparison to the 2008 US Open semi is not only based on the score (a smooth 4-set Federer win), but on the fact that Roger was doubted before the match, having lost to Novak in the Australian Open that year. Roger played with fire and determination like he did in this match, and the result was largely the same because of it.
The Wimbledon 2006 final was a case of Federer vs Nadal in their first match on grass, just as this was the first match between Federer and Djokovic on grass. Playing Roger on grass is a very different experience than playing him on any other surface, even for a guy that has played him 26 times before this encounter. On grass, Roger serves better than you think he can. He hits this forehand better than you think he can. He slices the ball with more cut. He moves just that much better on grass, which creates a sense of panic that you cannot outmaneuver him, which is surely what Djokovic was feeling in the heart of the match when things heated up. I, for one, believe Novak was a little shell-shocked at how quickly Roger was moving, as well as the precision in his serves and groundstrokes. That could have unnerved him a great deal, because he could never find his rhythm.
Overall, I am ecstatic that Roger put on a brilliant display of grass-court tennis. There was so much uncertainty heading into the match but I just had a feeling that Roger would play incredibly well and really surprise a lot of doubters. For being a month shy of 31 years old, the man can still play elite tennis like no other. He may not be as consistent day-in-day-out as he used to be, but that does not stop him. Like a car, his wheels just keep on turning.
Roger now plays Andy Murray in the final on Sunday. It should be a cracking match, and I only hope that Fed can take confidence from breaking down the game's top player and use it towards the final. He has had trouble with Andy in the past, but he is 2-0 in Grand Slam finals against the Brit.
I'll be writing a full final preview on Saturday detailing what Roger and Andy will need to do to prevail. Either Murray will win his first Slam and become the first British player to win a major since Fred Perry in 1936, or Federer will capture his 17th major, 7th Wimbledon, and recapture the #1 ranking and break Pete's all-time weeks at the top.