Breaking New Ground

Wednesday, July 04, 2012 /by

RFWhen Novak Djokovic and Roger Federer are interviewed before they play each other, they typically preface their remarks by saying something along the lines of, “We’ve faced each other many times, so...”

You can see why. On Friday they’ll play for the 27th time; all-time rivals John McEnroe and Bjorn Borg squared off on only 14 occasions. This will also mark the fifth time in the last seven Grand Slams that Novak and Roger have met in the semifinals. They know this drill exceptionally well.

Are there any new questions to ask in advance of Djokovic-Federer XXVII? Here are six.

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Who Will the Surface Favor?
This is the first time that Djokovic and Federer will meet on grass. Federer has won here six times, while Djokovic is the defending champion. Today each was asked about facing the other on the surface, and what effect it would have. 

Actually, Djokovic, forever in the shadows of Rafa and Roger where the media is concerned, was asked, “What do you admire about the play of Roger Federer on grass?” (Another question from Novak's presser: "How would describe from your perspective what Roger's place in history is?")

“He has great variety in his game,” Djokovic answered about Federer's grass skills. “He uses his serve very well. He opens up the court. He uses that slice really well to get the balls to bounce low. . . He has a really smart game for this surface.”

Federer was first asked about what he “can do on grass which you can’t do on other surfaces”?

“It’s much harder to defend on grass, time and again, than on any other surface,” Federer said. “But it’s hard to set up sometimes. . . . On grass I think it’s worth it to go closer to the lines, use a lot of down the line shots, which aren’t easy to pull off on other surfaces.”

As far as his matchup with Novak, Federer says, “Obviously it helps that he won the last couple [of matches] against me. Again it is our first grass-court match. We don’t know quite what to expect. I feel it’s a bit of an even ground. . . . I feel good about the match.”

In a nutshell, Djokovic believes that Federer’s slice helps him on grass especially, while Federer will likely be taking more risks down the line than he does elsewhere. If either of them throws in any new surface-based wrinkles, it will almost surely be Federer. What he does tactically to try to change their recent results will be interesting. Whatever it is, he’ll need to be sharp with it. Djokovic has been gathering everything in and spitting it back out at Wimbledon so far.  

"This year," Novak said today, "I've been playing really well, constantly well, from the start of the tournament." Indeed, he's been calmer at Wimbledon than anywhere else I can remember in 2012. 

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What If the Match is Played Under the Roof?
The London forecast calls, naturally, for rain on Friday (90 percent chance, as of today, Wednesday). Wimbledon will do what it can to keep the match outdoors, but it will be finished either way. On the one hand, Federer is a famously good indoor player; on the other, Djokovic has spent much of his time under the roof over the last week, and he says he likes returning serve in those conditions. He said it took him some time to adjust to the elements in his quarterfinal against Florian Mayer. But Federer's long track record of indoor excellence should give him an advantage if the roof is closed.

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Is Federer “Due”?

Q: You feel your game is trending in the right direction?

Federer: Yes, I’ve been playing well for a year now

As Federer says, it obviously helps Djokovic that he’s won six of their last seven matches. The Serb knows that what he’s been doing has been working. But, as the quote above demonstrates, Federer also feels like his form over the past year has been very good, the implication being that it will pay off at a major sooner or later. Is there anything to the idea of a player being “due”?

I would say yes, that the breaks will go Federer's way eventually, and that if he gets to match point this time, he stands a better than 50 percent chance of winning. The problem is, the last time these two played, Federer didn't take a set from Djokovic. "The breaks" never had a chance to be a factor. Federer’s body of work over the past 12 months would mean more against anyone other than Djokovic. 

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NDDoes Either Player Have the So-Called Mental Edge?
Let’s start by saying that mental edges dull easily in these types of high-stakes matches. The way the two players feel when they start isn’t going to be the way they feel once one of them wins the first set. Federer said today that they’re on “even ground” to begin. 

Whether that's the case or not, Federer needs the opening set more than Djokovic does. Federer was still calm even after losing the first two sets to Benneteau at this tournament. At Roland Garros against Djokovic, though, he had the opposite reaction to the same situation—he played the third as if resigned to defeat. Federer needs some good things to happen early to avoid getting that sinking sensation against Nole again. He allowed him back into the second set in Paris, the same way he did Benneteau here. That can’t happen again.

As for Djokovic, I think he’ll begin with a sense that he should win, but he’ll have to negotiate some moments of tightness and nerves before he can let that confidence work for him fully, before he can swing out, “with no fear,” as Federer says. If Federer can employ a new grass-based tactic successfully early on, the dynamics will change.

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Does Their Personal Relationship Come Into Play?
I mention this primarily because Federer was asked today about “some forceful comments” he made about Djokovic in a past Davis Cup tie.

“I was just upset at him calling the trainer out for no obvious reason against my buddy Stan [Wawrinka] in a five-setter," Federer said. "That was it. We had a quick chat about it in Madrid after that, and things are cool since a long time between me and him. I’ve always respected him. Have I gone out for dinner with him? No. But he’s been nice to work with [in ATP meetings] . . . I have no issues with him, and I hope you believe me.”

I think for both of these guys, the motivation is Wimbledon, not anything personal. Federer was asked, “What would it feel like to win here?”

“Obviously it’s a big deal,” he said. “No denying.” 

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What Will Happen?
The beauty of a tennis match is that, no matter how many times two players have met, no matter how well their know each other’s games, their next match will be different from their last. For all of the predictions we make, and for all of things that we say this player or that player “must” do to win, by the end we’ll probably look back and realize that none of those things happened quite the way we thought they would.

Federer has had back troubles (he said he was fine today), while Djokovic has been in better overall form through the fortnight, and he has owned their head to head for the last year and a half. But I picked Federer to start, and will stick with him here. For whatever it ends up being worth, he’s due.

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