The margins are slim at the top of the men’s game these days. We’ve heard it many times over the last few years, but it was borne out again in the semis and the final at the ATP’s year-end championships. Yesterday I began by saying that each set between Roger Federer and Andy Murray had the same theme—a lead by Murray that was erased, seemingly from out of nowhere, by an opportunistic Federer. Twenty-four hours later the roles had changed: This time is was Federer who went up an immediate break in each set, only to watch Novak Djokovic steal both of them from him at the end. It was a fitting end to 2012, as the season’s No. 1 player edged its No. 2, 7-6 (6), 7-5—96 total points to 95.
The strange thing is that, for most of the match, it was No. 2 who had the upper hand. Federer, the master of the one-minute opening hold, out-did himself this time by closing his first service game with an easy forehand volley winner at the 55-second mark. Djokovic, by contrast, was completely unsettled to start. He was broken at love in his own opening service game, a game that featured a mishit volley from him and a routine backhand sent 10 feet long. Federer went up 3-0, and when he started the following game with an imperious forehand winner, it looked like we might see a repeat of the first-set bagel that he served to Djokovic this summer in Cincinnati.
Again, though, the margins are slim, even between a 6-0 set and one that goes to a tiebreaker. Yesterday it was Murray who failed to secure an insurance break when he had a chance; this time it was Federer. He reached deuce at 3-0, as Djokovic began stretching his back in discomfort. But Nole held with a forehand winner to get on the board. The blowout was averted, but only just. His back got better.
The key point in the set was the next one, though not for the reasons we first thought. In it, Djokovic forced Federer to scramble, only to have him come back and smack a forehand pass by him. It looked like one more highlight-reel moment in Federer’s march to a first set win, but it ended up helping Djokovic more. He ran a lot in that point; after it, he relaxed, loosened up, and left his early discomfort behind. He also found his famous return of serve, putting one on the baseline at break point, which eventually led to a Federer ground stroke going long. After all of the Federer fireworks, they were back on serve. The match had turned, and the Swiss’s forehand wouldn’t be the weapon it was early on—he finished with eight winners and 24 unforced errors from that side. Djokovic went, in the blink of an eye, from being lost at sea to very much in his running, defending, counter-punching element along the baseline.
But Djokovic was far from home free. Serving for the set at 5-4, 30-0, he got tight and made three unforced errors, including one at set point, before being broken. The two went to a tiebreaker, and neither could shake the other through the first 10 points. Djokovic took a lead at 6-5, and seemed to have a forehand pass by Federer for the set—that’s when the fun began. Roger lunged and managed a perfect drop volley; Novak somehow tracked it down and flipped it past Federer, seemingly for the set again. But Federer reached back and found a forehand crosscourt angle for a winner. Djokovic could only put his hands on his hips in disbelief as the crowd rose to its feet. A very good set had reached its peak.
After the climax—there was the anti-climax. At 6-6, Federer made a strange shot choice, trying to go down the line with a topspin backhand from deep in the court. He shanked it badly, and Djokovic closed out the set with an inside-out forehand winner.
It had been a whirlwind set, and neither players nor fans seemed quite ready for another one right away. Federer opened it by persisting through an 11-minute game, with virtual silence in the arena, to break Djokovic’s serve. The quality of play became less spectacular and more rugged as the set wore. Federer again had a chance for some insurance on Djokovic’s serve at 3-1, but again his forehand deserted him at break point. Still, when Federer served at 5-4, it looked certain that the set would be his. He built a 40-15 lead and snapped off a first serve. Djokovic, as he tends to do at these moments, snapped it right back. Federer, rattled, made two errors, went down a break point, and watched as Djokovic hit two lines to win the game.
There were hints, in Djokovic’s back-to-the-wall chutzpah and Federer’s staggered response, of the end of their fabled 2011 U.S. Open semifinal. Those hints grew harder to ignore when Djokovic hit a big crosscourt forehand at 30-30 in the next game and held for 6-5, and Federer opened his following service game by sending a shanked forehand long. After another forehand miss for 30-30 and a backhand long for 30-40, we had, very suddenly and somewhat incredibly, reached championship point for Djokovic.
Federer went up the T with his serve; Djokovic was there. A few short balls from Djokovic later, Federer approached with an inside out forehand. Djokovic was there again, with this year’s version of The Shot—a lunging backhand pass winner. Federer, who had found the perfect balance of aggression and margin against Murray, had lost it this time. He may have been guilty of not coming forward and using his chip approach enough; he may have gone crosscourt with his forehand too often; he certainly missed it too much. Djokovic was the better player when it mattered. He kept the score close when he wasn’t playing well, he tightened the ship at the end of each set, and he played brilliantly, as always, with his back to the brink.
If there were any questions as to who the Player of the Year for 2012 was, they were answered with Djokovic’s final backhand. In a year when each of the Big 4 claimed a major, and when Federer and Djokovic each had two wins against the other, it was that bullet pass, which just cleared the net and just ducked under Federer’s outstretched racquet, that provided the clinching margin. As always these days, it was a slim one, but it was enough.