Roger Federer said at the start of the year that he expected to be playing his best tennis in a few months’ time; it looks like he may be a little ahead of schedule. On Friday in Dubai, on the final evening of February, Federer recorded what may be his most significant win in nearly two years. For the first time since the summer of 2012, he beat Novak Djokovic—3-6, 6-3, 6-2—to keep his nose in front in their career head to head, 17-15. In the process, he also won his first deciding set over another member of the Big 4 since 2010. Even if this wasn’t Federer's best tennis, it was, at the very least, breakthrough tennis.
While it was a step forward for Federer, it was the reverse for Djokovic. The Serb started quickly, making a great get on a drop shot in the opening game, breaking Federer a few minutes later, and consolidating at love for 3-0. Djokovic was especially sharp on his return, and his serve soon followed suit. After showing a few nerves trying to close it out at 5-3, he smacked two aces for the set. Four games later, when he reached break point on Federer’s serve at 2-2 in the second, it looked like Djokovic was on his way to his fourth straight win over Federer and his second straight final in Dubai.
But that’s when the match changed; or, I should say, that's when Federer changed it, as he has so often in the past, with a flick of his racquet. At break point, Djokovic pushed forward and got a high backhand volley. Instead of putting it away, he angled it crosscourt, where Federer was waiting; despite standing in no-man’s land, out of position, Federer was able to reflex a winning backhand pass to stay in the game.
The wind went out of Djokovic’s sails after that, and the lead went with it. He started the next game with three routine errors and was broken, and he was broken again in the opening game of the third set after two more routine mistakes and a double fault. As in his loss to Stanislas Wawrinka in Australia, Djokovic made an uncharacteristic number of misfires—he had three more unforced errors than Federer for the match, which isn’t a winning stat for the normally steadier Serb. Djokovic said afterward that he knows what needs to fix, but this match wasn’t a confidence-booster. Whether or not he was trying to implement a new game plan hatched by his coach, Boris Becker, is hard to say, but Djokovic looked tighter with the lead than normal, the same he way did when he was up a break in the fifth set against Wawrinka in Melbourne. For the first time since 2006, Djokovic will go to Indian Wells without a title.
Djokovic’s loss was Federer’s gain. While there was a lot of talk during the match about Federer’s success coming to net, the statistics say otherwise. Federer and Djokovic came in the same number of times, 17; Federer was 6 for 6 at net in the first set, 2 for 3 in the second set, and 3 for 8 in the third—the worse off he was up there, the better off he was in the scoreline. What made a bigger difference was Federer’s serve. His first-serve percentage rose from 55 in the first set to 60 by the end of the match; he won 76 percent of points on his first serve; and, perhaps most crucially, he snuffed out two break points at 1-0 in the third with an ace and a service winner. Federer had looked a little shaky from the ground in that game, but it would be the last time Djokovic threatened him.
Federer was also the better player from the baseline; he hit more winners and committed fewer unforced errors than Djokovic. Most impressive to me was Federer’s speed and defense. His quickness and reflexes looked undiminished, and he pulled off the point of the match to save a set point in the first set. With Djokovic pressing him, Federer made two backhand stab gets, turned a third stab into a perfect defensive lob, and finished the point with a drop volley winner. As it did all night, the crowd jumped to its feet in noisy appreciation of Federer's exploits. This time Djokovic could only join them with applause of his own.
Federer moves on to play Tomas Berdych in the final. Federer leads their head to head 11-6; Berdych has won their last two meetings.