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“We had epic matches throughout our rivalry,” Novak Djokovic said after his 7-6 (6), 5-7, 7-6 (3) win over Roger Federer in the Bercy semifinals last month, “but this one definitely ranks as one of the best matches we played. High-quality tennis.”
On the one hand, Djokovic was stating the obvious; the contest was an instant classic. On the other hand, he was also making a pretty significant statement. Djokovic and Federer have played 47 times over the last 12 years, including 18 finals and four Grand Slam finals. Yet Djokovic was right: This heavyweight fight was as good—as tactically intriguing and tensely competitive—as anything they had produced together.
It was also a match that many of us had been waiting to see. From 2014 to 2016, Djokovic had been the ATP’s dominant force. In 2017 and 2018, when his level dipped and he was ultimately sidelined with an elbow injury, Federer had taken advantage of his MIA status to win three Grand Slam titles and rise back to No. 1. Over the last two years, though, they had faced off just once, in Cincinnati, where Djokovic had won a lop-sided final. They were due for a testy epic, and Paris was where it finally happened.
Which was only fair, because Parisians, who famously adore Federer, hadn’t been able to express that adoration for three long years. He had skipped the French Open in 2017 and 2018, and hadn’t entered Bercy since 2015. Not surprisingly, the fans in Bercy quickly made their presence and their preference known in this match; in the end, though, their support for Federer may have motivated Djokovic more than it buoyed Federer himself.
Novak and Roger stood toe to toe for three hours, but this match wasn’t slugfest—or, it wasn’t just a slugfest, anyway. Rather than show off the new, post-2016 topspin backhand that he used to baffle and beat Rafael Nadal last year, Federer went in the other direction from that wing against Djokovic. He relied on his slice to keep the ball low and short crosscourt, and to give Djokovic as little pace as possible. That forced Djokovic to (a) dig out lots of low backhands, something no one with a two-hander likes to do; and (b) hit them a little more carefully than he normally does, because he had to work to lift them over the net. No wonder Djokovic was grunting loudly from the beginning of this match. Nothing was come freely and easily for him.
The pattern was set, and it didn’t vary much for the next three hours. Federer sliced his backhand to bring Djokovic up, and then drove his forehand deep whenever he had the chance. Djokovic, meanwhile, pressed forward relentlessly, looking for forehands whenever possible, and moving Federer back and forth along the baseline. By reputation, Federer is an attacker and Djokovic is a defender, but that wasn’t the dynamic we saw on this night. There was a mix of offense and defense from both men.
Within that dynamic, there were plenty of memorable shot-making moments. Federer saved a break point at 3-4 in the first set with a reflex volley winner off a Djokovic net-cord. Djokovic fired off several clean passing-shot winners, crosscourt and down the line. Federer staved off all 12 break points he faced. But Djokovic’s serve was just as vital.
There were also several surprising reversals.
In the first-set tiebreaker, Federer went up 6-5, set point, before losing the next three points, and the set, on backhand errors.
At 5-5 in the second set, Djokovic had yet another break point, but Federer responded with a forehand winner that landed on the sideline, and held serve with another inside-out forehand winner.
At 4-4 in the third set, Djokovic had two more break points, but Federer again responded, wiping them away with an ace and a service winner. By that stage, Djokovic could no longer hide his frustration, and he slammed his racquet to the court.
Finally, as has happened before when these two have met, it was Federer who blinked, and who ended the match with a flurry of anti-climactic unforced errors. Down 1-2 in the third-set tiebreaker, he hit a forehand long; at 1-3, he double faulted; at 1-5, he hit a backhand into the net. Only at 1-6 did Federer did pull himself together. He won the next two points, and then, at 6-3, pushed Djokovic into one of the best rallies of the match. With no more tricks up their sleeves or punches left to pull, the two men pounded the ball at each other until Federer finally drilled a backhand into the net.
“Next to the match I played against Nadal in semis of Wimbledon,” Djokovic said, “this was definitely the most exciting match I was playing this year.”
The victory extended Djokovic’s late-2018 winning streak to 22. While that run would be stopped the next day by Karen Khachanov in the Bercy final, Djokovic’s win over Federer was one more sign that the old Novak, the one who finds a way against the world’s best competition, was back. Four months after running his record against Nadal to 27-25 at Wimbledon, he ran his record against Federer to 25-22. It seems likely now that Djokovic will end up winning his career head-to-head battles with both men.
If this match was evidence of Djokovic’s return, it was also evidence of Federer’s continued relevance. That’s something no one can take for granted from a 37-year-old. Judging by his upbeat, end-of-year comments about how happy he is to still be competing at such a high level at his age, it’s something that Federer doesn’t take for granted, either.
We waited a long time for a proper, post-2016 edition of Djokovic-Federer. It turned out to be one of their best. God, and their health, willing, it won’t be their last.