Perhaps the most remarkable aspect of today’s stunning upset of top-ranked Novak Djokovic by Roger Federer is that it raises a question that simply did not seem tenable earlier this year, when Roger Federer was ranked No. 8 in the world — nor, for that matter, for almost the last half a decade.
Can Federer take the prestigious year-end No. 1 ranking?
That question popped as lively as a Federer first serve in the wake of today’s 6-4, 6-4 win over Djokovic. The result was built upon Federer’s willingness to take his chances with an aggressive, attacking game that neutralized Djokovic’s superb defensive baseline play. Federer put a shade over 70 percent of his first serves into play (a critical statistic, for it enabled him to set the tone for his service points) and he won an excellent 62 percent of his second serve points (13 of 21). He also hit 35 winners and eight aces.
But here’s the most significant stat of them all: Federer attacked the net 35 times, and won 20 of those points. Perhaps none was more important than the last of them, which ought to remain the lingering symbol of this match. Struggling with nerves to serve out the match, he ended it by attacking the Djokovic backhand. He hit an excellent backhand volley crosscourt, but Djokovic ran it down and went down the line with the forehand; Federer hit another superb, heavily sliced backhand volley back the other way to end the match on a clean winner. It is a shot Federer has always had, that heavy backhand sliced volley; it’s about time he trotted it out for all to see with a little more frequency.
This was a tactical win, and proof that Federer has made a critical transition that even some great players never master. Once he was a typically confident, arrogant champion who would bring the game he’s most comfortable playing to any match and dare an opponent to match it. Lately, he’s become more like a savvy and wise veteran willing to make adjustments in his game or strategy, on the assumption that the old approach just isn’t good enough any more against players of a certain caliber.