Djoko Unchained

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"Master class" is a term usually reserved for Federer; on Thursday, Djokovic gave us one of his own. (AP)

Certain descriptive words and phrases in tennis are typically reserved for Roger Federer’s matches. You’ve heard them hundreds, if not thousands, of times before when he plays: “graceful,” “vintage,” “artistic,” “full flight.” Federer’s best tennis has inspired a vocabulary of its own.

Then there’s the descriptive term that’s used when Federer really plays well. While other men administer schoolyard “beatdowns,” or take their opponents to a dank and mysterious “woodshed,” Federer teaches a “master class.” His method of victory, with its elegant spins and dips and curves and flicks, is seen as more elevated and civilized; it’s something we can all learn from.

Will we ever allow another player to give us such a comprehensive lesson in excellence? If Novak Djokovic’s play during the first two sets of his 6-1, 6-2, 3-6, 6-3 win over Federer in Melbourne on Thursday wasn't a master class in tennis—not “modern tennis” or “baseline tennis” or “today’s tennis”; just tennis—than it’s hard to say what could qualify.

Djokovic always braces for an onslaught from Federer, but this time he was so prepared, so ready, so alert, and so amped that he ended up turning the tables and delivering his own offensive assault. Djokovic played at a faster pace than he usually does, and his shots were equally crisp. He hit deep, he hit hard, he hit with weight, he hit the corners on his ground strokes and kept the ball low on his passes, and he made Federer pay for every missed first serve. Djokovic’s shots sounded different, too: louder, more solidly struck, more punishing.

But this wasn’t just, as the British tennis writer Rex Bellamy once described Jimmy Connors’ game, “pounding prose”—there was poetry from Djokovic as well. This time it was the Serb, rather than the Swiss, who drew a “Whoa!” from ESPN’s commentators, with a dipping forehand winner hit at full stretch, with a crosscourt backhand that had Federer moving the wrong way, with a delicately cupped, sharp-angle forehand pass. After 40 minutes, the score was already 6-1, 3-1 in Djokovic’s favor. When he powered a backhand winner an inch or so from the line in that game, Federer shot him a look across the net. “Who are you?" While Federer certainly knew who he was up against, you could understand his reaction. This was Djoko Unchained.

“I knew he was going to be aggressive,” Djokovic said afterward. “But I came up with the right intensity, great concentration. I executed everything perfectly.”

As has been said of some of the Maestro’s own post-victory speeches, it ain’t braggin’ if it’s true.

“When you’re playing one of your top rivals, somebody of Roger’s résumé, of course it requires a lot of focus, determination, and a different preparation for that matchup,” Djokovic continued, trying to explain the difference between his 20-error performance against Federer (which he called the best of his career vs. Roger) and his 100-error performance four days earlier against Gilles Simon (which he said couldn’t have been worse). 

By the middle of the second set, Federer—reacting to a backhand and getting down for a volley—looked a step slow. He only appears this way, to me, when he faces the ever-spry and five-years-younger Djokovic. Federer didn’t help his cause by making just 57 percent of his fist serves, and he looked unsure of how to combat his opponent’s barrage. Should he try to take control of the rallies? Djokovic feeds off pace. Should he take a step back, slow the points, and force Djokovic to hit a lot of balls? It’s hard to imagine him grinding Novak down. 

“The problem for me, he got the early break and started to feel very free and very good on the night,” Federer said.

Federer said that he had seen Djokovic play that freely late in matches, but never this early.

“There was no wind," Federer said. "There was nothing there that could stop it, really, other than my playing. That made it tough for me. But great effort by him to open up really early.”

Federer continued to attack the net, with varying degrees of success; he was 22 of 38 there. In the third set, he finally established himself in his service games, and sowed a seed of doubt in Djokovic’s mind. The soccer-like crowd helped, but the weather didn’t. While the audience buoyed Federer through the third set, tournament officials took the wind out of his sails again when they told him the roof was closing, and a break in play would ensue. Normally a closed roof is good news for Federer, but not on this night. With the crowd quieted and any momentum dissipated, Djokovic finished the match with a routine 6-3 set.

“I don’t think that’s where the match played out, to be honest,” Federer said when asked about the delay. “The match was in a tough spot at that point anyway ... I had a game plan. Of course I had ideas what I should do. I couldn’t quite get it done. Maybe parts of my game, maybe parts of his game just matched up in a tough way and the first set ran away very quickly.”

This performance should dispel the notion that Djokovic is primarily a defensive player. Yes, his retrieving skills are rightly praised, but rather than waiting to parry the Federer attack, this time he showed that he could get in the first punch against him. It may not be a coincidence that this confident victory leaves Djokovic at a career tipping point with his two main rivals. Earlier this month, in a similarly brilliant performance, he passed Rafael Nadal for the first time in their head to head, 24-23; his win on Thursday put him ahead of Federer 23-22.

For the moment, though, Djokovic still has another match to win. He’s into his sixth Australian Open final; like his fellow world No. 1 and fellow Aussie finalist, Serena Williams, he’s never lost a title match in Melbourne.

Djokovic finished the evening with a bit of sportsman's wisdom. Asked by Jim Courier how he bounced back from the Simon match, Djokvovic said, “It’s important that in the end of the day, that your convictions are stronger than your doubts.”

The doubts, in other words, will always be there, even for a world No. 1. But there are ways to fight them. 

All part of the master class.

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