Roger Federer and Novak Djokovic will continue their storied rivalry, meeting for the 45th time at the Australian Open. It will be a much anticipated match, and they have both won 22 times each.
Djokovic, coming off the back of a stellar 2015 season where he beat Roger twice in Grand Slam finals, is the definite favourite. What does Federer need to do well in order to stand a chance? (Besides everything, you mean?)
1. Serve Well
This much is obvious. Djokovic is the best returner the game has ever seen, and he makes you pay if you leave him too many second serves to hit. Though I believe Agassi is the greatest pure offensive returner in the game's history, the Serb is definitely the best all-round one. He isn't as aggressive on second serves as the enigmatic American was, but he gets great depth and often puts the server under pressure immediately, taking the ball early and delivering a strike that more often than not puts him in an offensive position right away in the rally.
Federer's serve is one of the best the game has ever seen, this much we know. To give himself a chance to win, he must serve well. This means keeping a high first serve percentage and hitting his spots with his accurate rhythmic delivery. It also means varying his second serve in an attempt to get Novak off balance as much as possible. Serving out wide on the deuce side and down the T on the ad side will be crucial.
2. Aggression on the 2nd serve return
Under the tutelage of Boris Becker, Djokovic has developed one of the best second serves in the game. It has good pace, he can kick it or slice it, and he isn't afraid to hit a big one on important points. Federer has long been too passive (as a general rule) on second serve returns, choosing to slice or chip the ball into play rather than being aggressive to help set up the point.
Against Tomas Berdych in the quarterfinals, Roger attacked second serves regularly, getting the ball deep in the court, giving himself good opportunity to be the aggressor from the baseline. Though Djokovic has a much better second serve than the Czech, the same aggressive intent will need to be there against the game's most impenetrable defense. It will be harder to be as aggressive as he was in the quarterfinal, because Novak varies his second serve so well (unlike Tomas) and aims to keep the returner off balance. Nevertheless, if the Great Swiss is going to win, he will need his return to be doing some damage.
3. Crack the forehand
Seems obvious, right?
For the last number of years, Fed's feared forehand hasn't been the same weapon it once was between 2003 and 2009 (including the Australian Open 2010, where he hit it superbly). But the aggression of his forehand against Berdych was fantastic. It was honestly the best I've seen him hit his forehand in six years since his 16th major win.
Djokovic defends better than anyone, this much we know. Roger must capitalize on any medium-length balls Novak gives him by creating time and space for his favourite "fearhand." A staple of RF's game in his mid-twenties was crushing forehands from central areas of the court and constantly putting opponents under pressure. Though Novak defends so incredibly well, Roger must have the same aggressive mindset as he did in his quarterfinal - taking a big mid-court ball and attacking the net as if it had stolen his food on a camping trip.
We have long gone past the point where Roger can slug it out with Novak from the baseline, especially in a best of five set encounter. This means he must take every opportunity to put the World #1 on the defensive and come forward. Crushing his forehand early in rallies is the way to go. That isn't suggesting he "go for broke" and try to hit low percentage winners - rather, step up in the court, power a shot to one of the corners, and constantly keep Novak out of that lethal baseline rhythm he loves, where he's virtually unstoppable.
4. Backhands down the line
Every time Roger has had success in this match up in recent years, his backhand down the line to the Djokovic forehand has been a shot used to great effect. He won't win many backhand to backhand rallies, and when the opportunity presents itself, he must take a risk and redirect the ball up the line in an attempt to get the Serb off balance, and to give himself forehand looks in central court positions. Approaching the net by slicing up the line could also be an effective tactic, to keep the ball low and give himself time to get close to the net - plus force a tougher pass.
Roger wasn't even three years old when "Footloose" was released, but he must dance just the same. In my opinion Fed has the greatest feet in the game's history, and he must be dancing in this one. Footwork will be more imperative than usual because of the depth Novak gets, and as I've mentioned, Roger must be fully ready to take on any shorter ball to pounce. This is especially vital when turning backhands into forehands, something historically he does better than anyone when he's on.
My greatest advice to Roger, as a fan? Stay relaxed. At the US Open he wasted many chances by not pulling the trigger at the right time and trying to let Novak miss. That isn't a good strategy on the big points against anyone, let alone the best big-point player in the world. Roger is the big underdog and few expect him to win. Fed, of course, will step on court with every intention of winning - he hasn't accomplished this much by not having a great mindset in big matches.
He must stay committed to the gameplan he has with new coach Ivan Ljubicic, and he must give himself the best opportunity to win in every set. That means keeping the energy level high, remaining laser focused, and playing to all of his strengths - versatility, net play, good serving, controlling with the forehand, and opportunistic returning.
This will be a huge test for Roger, and a lot will need to go well for him to end the night with a victory. Djokovic is absolutely incredible on these courts, and though he hasn't looked particularly sharp against Simon and Nishikori, he will be fully ready and I expect nothing less than his best effort. If both men are at their best, Novak probably comes out the winner. Roger, at least, must be playing at a high enough level to capitalize on any mistakes Novak makes.
It should be a great match. Regardless of the winner, I'm still so proud to be a fan of Roger. He has had a great tournament and the start to 2016 has been encouraging even if the outcome doesn't match his (and his fans) desire.