Indian Wells: Djokovic d. Federer
Three thoughts on what may very well be the best best-of-three-set match of 2014:
1. In today’s chat, someone asked me who Indian Wells tournament owner and money magnet Larry Ellison wanted to win. I said that Ellison would prefer the match to go as long as possible, so that both men would be forced to pull out of next week's Miami Masters, a la Roger Federer and Rafael Nadal after their 2006 war in Rome. Not only would that hurt his rival tournament out east, but it would further enhance the image of the BNP Paribas Open, which he's built into an event that matches the Grand Slams in everything except the points on offer.
At two hours and 12 minutes, this match won't turn Key Biscayne into Hamburg, but Ellison watched another classic unfold at his wildly successful enterprise. He not only got two of the biggest draws on his second-Sunday marquee, but they played some incredible tennis. Federer was flawless in the first set, mowing through his service games like Andy Murray eats sushi (there's a Nobu at Indian Wells, did I mention that?). Djokovic called Federer's raise in the second set. When the Swiss, down a break and with no room for error at 4-5 in the third, went all-in, the Serb succumbed. But Djokovic still had a chip and a chair in this high-stakes game.
Federer’s shotmaking began to fail him early in the third set, but he rediscovered his form in time to make Djokovic sweat—profusely, perhaps. But perhaps Djokovic's clutch and surprisingly easy hold at 5-6 was telling. He was definitely the better player toward the end, which manifested itself in an ugly, error-filled tiebreaker for Federer.
While the ending wasn't as dramatic as what preceded it, this was a fantastic final and both men should be pleased with their play at what many are calling the fifth Slam—Ellison leading the charge, of course.
2. I thought Federer had to play his best to win this match; I thought Djokovic could get away without a peak performance. Really, I said that.
As it turned out, Djokovic didn't have to be at his apex to get the job done, though we saw flashes of his Slam-winning game today. It surely wasn't there in the first set—too many short balls and tentative shots. But he seemed to will his way into it in the second set, and in the third he looked like the Nole we know: Stingy defense, running winners, easy power.
I don't think it's a stretch to say that things have been very mental for Djokovic of late; look at his sense of relief, rather than outward celebration, he did after winning this strenuous, 3-6, 6-3, 7-6 (3) championship bout. It's fitting that he needed to believe before he could achieve.
3. As I said, this result bodes well for Federer. Only an in-form Djokovic prevented him from climbing the title, and many were calling Fed the favorite before the final. Federer isn't just a different player than last year, he's a different player than two months ago, when he struggled in a final-round loss to Lleyton Hewitt in Brisbane.
As many of you know, Federer has now reached seven straight semifinals in tournament play. It's hardly 23 consecutive Grand Slam semis, but this streak should assuage fears that the 17-time major champion is in irreversible decline. As down as Djokovic has looked during his recent struggles, Federer has looked the opposite, invigorated with a renewed zeal. His all-black Wilson, which once looked as awkward as an ill-fitting tuxedo, now appears to be calibrated. Davis Cup and the success of his buddy Stanislas Wawrinka seem to have buoyed him. He's going to be adding to his family soon. Right now, it's good to be Roger Federer.
Not that anyone wouldn't have traded places with the multi-millionaire when he was losing to Daniel Brands and Federico Delbonis last year, of course.
OK, maybe not Larry Ellison.