Novak Djokovic has many talents and skills, but one of the least conspicuous but most vital is his resistance to panic. That ability came in handy today in the semifinals of the Paris Masters, as he had to endure a dazzling onslaught by Roger Federer to win, 4-6, 6-3, 6-2.
The descending order of games won by Federer in the final two sets indicates an unavoidable reality that will provide comfort to Federer fans: The 32-year old, all-time singles Grand Slam champion ran out of steam, while Djokovic took his sweet time dialing in his customarily brutal ground and serve game.
You could frame what might be described as Federer’s dilemma these days with an easy question: Is it a good thing that Federer is trying two, sometimes three drop shots from close to his own baseline in some games? The question gives you some idea of the risks Federer seems to feel (accurately, it seems to me) he must take if he’s going to compete with Djokovic or Rafael Nadal.
In the first set of this one, those chances taken by Federer paid off handsomely. True, Djokovic was grumpy and slightly unfocused in the early going (Federer had a break point in the very first game), but Federer’s game was simply scintillating. Slashing ground strokes left and right, converting 75 percent of his first serves, attacking Djokovic with impunity, moving like he did a decade ago, Federer recorded an early break for 2-1 and kept tight control of the set until he served for it at 5-4.
At that point, Federer lost the plot and you could see a hint of that poisonous uncertainty that plagued him this summer creep into his game. He fell behind 15-40, but saved those break points with a brilliant backhand volley and a Djokovic inside-out forehand error. He warded off another pair of break points in the deuce-ad portion of the ensuing program, but closed out the set with a fine serve and aggressive forehand approach winner combination and, on set point, a service winner to the backhand.
Federer broke Djokovic to start the second set, at which point even skeptics aware that Djokovic had won seven of the last 10 meetings between these men had to begin paying attention. But Djokovic broke right back when Federer whistled a flat backhand down the line. It fell just out. It was a telling shot, because it highlighted the degree to which Federer had been living on the edge. His margin of error throughout the match was extremely small, and from that point on he began paying the price for it.
Meanwhile, Djokovic was slowly gathering his momentum. When Federer made a few surprising forehand errors in the next game, Djokovic became visibly animated. It appeared that the predator in him was fully awake and alert as he held to take a lead he would never relinquish, 2-1.
Djokovic bagged the critical break in the sixth game, on his eighth break point of the match. Federer fought back in that game from 15-40, but from deuce he made a forehand error to end a rally and then met the break point with a full-on serve-and-volley charge. Djokovic’s return was playable, but Federer ran through the forehand volley and smacked the ball into the net. That made it 2-4 and Djokovic served out the set with no further incident.
In the final set, Djokovic’s return game continued to improve. Combined with the slight but critical decline in Federer’s once outstanding first-serve-made percentage, it was enough to allow Djokovic to wrest away command of the match. Those slices, drops shots, and forays to the net became less frequent, and trouble loomed when Djokovic drilled an un-returnable forehand approach to break Federer and lead in the final set, 2-1.
It was clear that Djokovic was wearing down his opponent, and the ensuing games practically flew by. The only break point we’d see before we reached match point was against Federer, and Djokovic converted it with a forehand cross-court winner to take the 5-2 lead. He served out the match with ease in the next game.
Twelve of the 13 times these men played best-of-three, the one who won the first set ended up winning. That the match today violated the trend tells you something about the toll age has taken on Federer — and the patience of Djokovic.
Stat of the match: Roger Federer won just 11 percent of the second serves he hit in the third set (1 of 9).