INDIAN WELLS, CALIF.—“They bring out the best in each other.”
It’s a statement that’s often made about great athletes, but it’s more of a hope than it is a fact. Just as often in tennis, one great player brings out the worst in another by rolling right over him. That’s what it appeared was going to happen for the first set-and-a-half here on Sunday, when a razor-sharp Roger Federer threatened to run away with the men’s final against a frazzled and frayed Novak Djokovic.
The Serb had looked and played that way for much of this tournament, and for much of the 2014 season. But that’s not how Djokovic was playing by the end of this match, which he came back to win 3-6, 6-3, 7-6 (3). On Sunday at Indian Wells, it really did take one all-time great player, Federer, to bring out the best in another, Djokovic.
“You always have to dig deep against Roger,” a relieved Djokovic said later. “You know that he’s going to play on a very high level in the latter stages of the tournament, especially in the finals. I know that he’s not going to give me anything."
Federer, who has been playing as well as anyone on tour this year, certainly wasn’t in a charitable mood in the first set. Building off the momentum of his last two easy wins, Federer started quickly and aggressively. He chipped and charged to earn a break in the second game, and didn’t let Djokovic get a sniff at a break the rest of the way. Federer hit four unreturnable serves to hold for 4-2, and closed the set with a love game. When he’s clicking for 74 percent of first serves, even a returner like Djokovic isn't going to win many sets from him.
No matter how quickly he starts, though, Federer isn’t going to cruise all the way through many matches against Djokovic—counting today, the Serb has beaten the Swiss five times after dropping the first set (Federer has done that to Djokovic just once, in Dubai last month). In the second set, Federer’s first serve began to stray, while Djokovic, as Federer said, “got his teeth into it."
“As the match progressed,” Djokovic said, “I felt like he started to make a little bit more unforced errors, and it allowed me to step into the court.”
Still, halfway through the second set, Federer was playing well enough to snap off a sharp crosscourt backhand and follow it with a forehand winner to hold for 3-3; at that stage, he had yet to face a break point. When Djokovic opened his next service game with a weak backhand into the net, and Federer wrong-footed him to start the following point, it looked like the second set was going to go the same way as the first. Djokovic reached back for a desperation one-handed crosscourt backhand; Federer moved forward, seemingly for an easy winner. But for some reason, he tried a drop shot instead. It died before it reached the net, and 0-30 became 15-15.
Two points later, the score stood at 30-30. Djokovic missed his first serve and floated his second one into the middle of the box. In the celebrated Age of Fedberg, I expected Federer to chip his backhand and follow it in, as he had when he broke serve in the first set. But Federer elected to float a slice backhand into the middle of the court and move back to the baseline. He lost the point, and the game. When they changed sides, Federer was broken for the first time, for 3-5, and a newly confident Djokovic held for the second set. It had all happened so quickly, but it had all started with Federer’s failure to stay on the attack when he had the chance at 3-3.
“As I said before the match today,” Djokovic reiterated afterward, “very few points will decide a winner, and that’s what happened. One break was enough for him to win the first set. It was exactly the same for me in the second.”
And only a few points decided the third, as Djokovic and Federer each made the other up his level—now both men were at top speed, and winners were matched with winners. Djokovic broke early, but Federer hung on and, with the crowd at full roar, broke back with a brilliant game for 5-5.
“I was able to keep the pressure on Novak,” Federer said of his third-set mindset, “and show him that if he slips up, I will be there and I’ll make it a very competitive match in the end for him. That’s exactly what happened.”
Djokovic had caught up to Federer; now Federer had caught up to Djokovic. It was time for one more surge by the No. 2 seed. With the wind at his back for the first six points, Djokovic was too solid for Federer, who showed his first bit of impatience and inconsistency of the day. The crowd that had roared so loudly for Federer a few minutes earlier had to be satisfied with enjoying a classic match, and a well-earned win by Djokovic, who celebrated with a respectful lack of histrionics. The final point count told the tale of how close it had been: 99 points for Djokovic; 98 for Federer.
“It was an interesting end to the match,” a disappointed but philosophical Federer said of the deciding tiebreaker. “I think he played well. At the end he made sure he kept the ball in play and I might have made a few too many errors when it really mattered. Credit to him for toughing it out.”
Djokovic said he “needed this win for his confidence,” and that didn't sound like an overstatement. He has now won three straight Masters events, but a loss after serving for the match here could have been devastating. It’s one thing to beat Marin Cilic and John Isner, as he had in the previous two rounds, and another to beat Roger Federer. It took playing the best for Djokovic to find his best.
Last summer on the practice courts at Eastbourne, Flavia Pennetta couldn’t hit the target that her coach laid out a few feet inside the baseline. Crosscourt forehand after crosscourt forehand: She wasn’t even close. The session seemed to go on forever, but Pennetta’s accuracy never improved. Frustrated, she bounced her racquet on the grass. She yelled in Italian. She flung unhappy hand gestures at the sky. Finally, Pennetta turned and smacked her racquet against the old wooden scoreboard at the back of the court. The sun was starting to go down, and it looked as if practice were over for the day. Instead, Pennetta turned around, gritted her teeth, and found her range. She hit the target once, twice, three straight times, and kept hitting it regularly for the next 15 minutes. Whatever was wrong with her forehand wasn’t wrong anymore.
Watching the 32-year-old Pennetta in the Indian Wells final 10 months later, I couldn’t help but remember that practice session, and how it has mirrored the last year of her career. In 2013, a nagging wrist injury sent the former Top Tenner down to No. 83 in the rankings, and nearly caused her to quit the game entirely at this tournament. Now, exactly one year later, she finished it by lifting the very heavy winner’s trophy. Or trying to lift it; she never got the huge glass sculpture up in the air. But that was a failure Flavia could live with, because her 6-2, 6-1 win over Agnieszka Radwanska today was the biggest success of her 14-year career.
“Finally I have a good trophy in my hands,” a beaming Pennetta said afterward.
“I think this one is, after so many years,” she continued, “this is the moment I was always waiting for, no? In the beginning of the week I never expect to be the champion or to be in the final or semifinal.”
Pennetta said she vividly remembered her experience here last year, “taking with my physio, Max, almost crying because the feeling and everything was so bad. And now, after one year, we have the trophy.”
Sadly, while Pennetta’s win was a memorable one, it was the loser’s trophy-ceremony speech that will be remembered longer. Radwanska had been the favorite to win her first title at Indian Wells, which would have matched her win in Miami two years ago as the most prestigious of her career. But she hurt her left leg in practice a few days ago, and the injury—Radwanska was unsure what it was, exactly—flared up as soon as she began the match today. At the start of the second set, she called the trained and took a medical timeout. After that, with each changeover, the mound of tape around her knee grew; all Aga could do was look at it and shake her head in disgust. Disgust turned to tears as she stepped to the microphone to give her runner’s-up speech.
“I’m sorry I couldn’t run as much as I could,” a choked up Radwanska apologized.
In the past, I’ve questioned Aga’s desire to win titles at the highest level. She has seemed satisfied with making the semis and moving on to the next event, and she never appeared to try to peak for the major tournaments. But here she was in tears over a Premier Mandatory defeat. I hated to see her lose the way she lost today, and hated to see her have to give the speech she gave, but I’m glad to know it meant so much to her.
As for Flavia, there’s no reason to put an asterisk next to this win. She also beat Li Na, Sloane Stephens, and Sam Stosur in Indian Wells, and she played a smart match today.
“I was trying to hit the ball hard and go for the winners,” she said. Pennetta, a smooth, upright ball-striker, did that very well, going big but not too big from the ground—it’s always harder than it looks to find the right balance against a player who defends as well as Radwanska.
Maybe it was all that target practice. While her opponent wasn’t at her best today, Flavia Pennetta, veteran of many frustrating injuries, painful practice sessions, and early losses, knows how far she had to travel to pick up—OK, look at—this champion’s trophy.
“Today was my day,” she said when it was all over.