Federer vs. Djokovic: Indian Wells Final Preview

Sunday, March 16, 2014 /by
AP Photo
AP Photo

INDIAN WELLS, CALIF.—“Novak and myself are still in the draw, so we’ll see who’s going to end up winning the tournament in the end.”

That’s what Roger Federer said last week when he was asked about the possible surge of the ATP's second tier in the wake of his countryman Stan Wawrinka’s big win in Australia. Federer’s skepticism proved to be well-founded: In the end, despite losses by fellow Big 4 members Rafael Nadal and Andy Murray, the first tier won out again. Change in the men’s game will have to wait for at least another couple of weeks.

One measure of the Big 4’s success is how many times, despite being placed far away from each other in draws, they’ve managed to meet over the years. Nadal and Federer have played 33 times; Nadal and Djokovic have played 39 times; and this final will be the 33rd meeting between Djokovic and Federer. The Swiss leads the Serb 17-15, and he won their last meeting, in three sets, in the semis in Dubai last month. 

With another edition of Fedovic—or Djokerer, if you prefer—a few hours away, here’s a look at a few of the key elements that could decide their first Indian Wells final against each other.

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Matchup
As I said above, Federer leads 17-15 and won their last match in Dubai a month ago. But neither player has a natural edge over the other. Djokovic had won their three previous meetings, and they’ve tended to trade short win streaks against each other over the years. When asked about playing each other, they always say they’ve “had many battles over the years," they "know each other’s games well," and it’s a matter of who’s hitting the ball better on that day.

Form
OK, so who’s hitting the ball better at the moment? It’s hard to argue against Federer, who is 19-2 this season, hasn’t dropped a set in Indian Wells, and has reached seven straight semifinals. He had his shaky moments closing out sets in the early rounds, but has seemed very calm and confident in his last two matches. Federer has seemed relaxed in general, as if he has a little less to lose at this stage of his career, when he’s No. 5, than he did when he was No. 1.

Djokovic struggled with his forehand against John Isner in the last round, and had his own troubles closing out the second set, which he served for twice and eventually lost. He also wasn’t happy with his play earlier in the week; it seemed as if he could either serve well or hit from the baseline well, but not both at the same time. Without a title so far this year, he’s come to this event with some seeds of doubt in his head. Still, Djokovic survived a very tough mental test against Isner. Playing Federer may seem like a relief by comparison.

Shots
The Federer serve will be the big one. He said he had “one of the best serving days of my life” against Alexandr Dolgopolov on Saturday; if he has another like that, he’s probably going to beat Djokovic as well, despite Nole’s famed return of serve. In their match in Dubai, Federer’s first serve improved with each set, and so did his results. 

For Djokovic, returning well would help, of course, but he has to be steady with his ground strokes—the forehand, especially, broke down under pressure against Isner. He lost the Dubai match to Federer not, primarily, because of something his opponent did, but because the momentum changed when Nole started making inexplicable ground-stroke errors in the second set. Consistency is his best weapon against Federer, especially on slower courts like these.

Conditions
Speaking of those slow hard courts at Indian Wells, we haven’t heard much about what an abomination they are this time around. Maybe that’s because Federer himself, a lover of fast courts, pronounced them A-OK earlier in the event. He said the increased speed of the ball through the thin desert air balances out the decreased speed of the courts nicely. Of course, Federer also said that after he had won a match...

Yesterday Djokovic said the slower courts favor his steadier, more defensive-oriented style, and he’s probably right—he won their only meeting at Indian Wells, in the 2011 semifinals, 6-3, 3-6, 6-2. But it’s not like Federer doesn’t know how to win on them; he’s a four-time champ here, and he played well in the wind in the semifinals.

The temperature has been high, in the 80s, this week, and the forecast for Sunday is “87, with plenty of sun.” You might think that would favor the younger Djokovic, but he has never loved the heat, and he’s coming off three sets in it with Isner yesterday. Federer, who played first on Saturday, and for just over an hour, should be fresh.

Adjustments
Djokovic said that Federer hit his backhand especially well against him in Dubai, so he knows he’ll have to watch for that. But he also said he struggled with consistency there because he hadn’t played many matches; that shouldn’t be an issue after a week of matches in Indian Wells.

Federer had some success mixing in forays to the net last month, but his serve itself was the bigger factor. He’ll want to keep the points shorter than Djokovic will. When he has beaten the Serb in the past, he has gotten on top of him in the baseline rallies and imposed his will early in the match. 

The semi in Dubai was the first time in their 32 meetings that Federer lost the first set and came back to win; Djokovic has done it four times. The first set is obviously important, but history says it’s a little more important for Federer.

Pick: Federer in three sets

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