By now, we’ve heard about a lot of things that have “defined” Roger Federer’s disappointing 2013. The lost step, the misfired forehand, the trouble serving out sets, the mounting losses to his closest rivals. In that sense, his 6-4, 6-7(2), 6-2 defeat at the hands of Novak Djokovic in the year-end championships on Tuesday was the perfect summation to his season. It included a little bit of everything that has gone wrong for Federer over the last 12 months. Even his flashes of brilliance were characteristic. They were just that, flashes; they came and went.
The first thing that went for Roger was the forehand. At 4-4 in the first set, with a break point, Federer worked the point to his advantage, only to pull the kill shot, a crosscourt forehand, just wide. That miss proved contagious, as he overcooked three easy forehands in his next service game and, after 37 minutes, handed what had appeared to be a competitive set to Djokovic.
In the second, Federer found his range as only he can: With a leaping overhead, a fake drop shot, a couple of swing volley winners, and a vintage bullet forehand return from the alley in the ad court. It was enough to suddenly make Nole nervous. It’s easy to tell when Djokovic gets that way these days: He loses control of his body and briefly goes blind in the process. Djokovic, flailing all over the court, was broken for 3-2. But this only gave Federer a chance to repeat another of his negative patterns from 2013—the inability to handle prosperity. Twice he went up a break in the second set; twice he gave the break back. The first time it came on a dismal double fault into the net, the second time on a weak backhand that landed in the same place.
It looked for a few minutes as if neither player had the will to take the second set. Finally, gathering all of his old skills together for a few minutes, Federer broke loose and left Djokovic behind in the tiebreaker. He hit a brilliant two-volley combination, put a forehand on the outside of the sideline, and finished with a scoop lob that landed smack on the baseline. It was enough to win Federer the set, and maybe even enough to help his marriage out a little. His wife, Mirka, had been shaking her head in frustration through much of the match (when she was able to watch, that is). By the end of the breaker, she was all smiles. Most of the vocally pro-Federer crowd in the O2 Arena joined her.
Yet Federer’s time-travel tiebreaker was also something we’ve seen before this year, most prominently against Andy Murray at the Australian Open. This time, just like that time, he had nothing left for the deciding set. Now it was Djokovic’s turn to show why he’s undefeated since the U.S. Open, and still in the running for No. 1. He put the clamps down, stopped missing, and began to grind Federer from side to side along the baseline. Without taking much in the way of risk, Djokovic was able to get him out of position, especially running to his right. Federer must have missed a dozen lunging forehands on the day. He had no answer to Nole at his most clinical. Federer finished with 45 errors against just 27 winners.
Djokovic wasn’t spotless, either: He ended with 33 errors and 29 winners. What was interesting was watching him go through what you might call the Phases of Nole to finally reach his best self. With the finish line starting to loom in the second set, he got so tight he briefly lost all coordination—it was as if his nerves robbed his body of its famous elasticity for a moment. Two games later, down 3-5, Djokovic went 180 degrees in the other direction, into his ultra-loose, nothing to lose, stand and deliver mode. Naturally, he played better that way and broke serve. Finally, in the third set, having wrung himself dry of emotion, Djokovic was able to settle down and play calm, straightforward, winning tennis.
He has been doing that a lot lately; 18 times in a row, dating back to the U.S. Open, to be exact. Djokovic will try to make it 19 on Thursday, against either Juan Martin del Potro or Richard Gasquet.