Doing the Heavy Lifting

by: Steve Tignor | November 22, 2015

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Novak Djokovic won his fourth consecutive season-ending championship, and beat Roger Federer for the fifth time in 2015. (AP)

The ATP’s year-end championships in London really did provide a perfect—or at least perfectly appropriate—summation of the 2015 season. Novak Djokovic won his 11th title, in his 15th straight final, to put a hard-earned exclamation point on the best and most dominant season of his career. And he did it with a 6-3, 6-4 victory over Roger Federer, the same man he had beaten in the finals of the year’s two biggest events, Wimbledon and the U.S. Open.

The similarities didn’t end there. For me, Djokovic’s 2015 season, and his rivalry with Federer over the last 12 months, could be boiled down to two points they played in Sunday’s final.

The first of those points came in the second set at 3-3, 15-15, on Djokovic’s serve. Federer had just put together a strong hold, and the crowd, which had been looking for a reason to get behind him for at least an hour, was murmuring. At 15-0, Federer brought them to their feet when he moved the Serb all over the court and finished the rally with a leaping overhead. At 15-15, Djokovic missed his first serve, causing more murmurs. If Federer was going to make a move, this seemed to be the moment. 

Instead, Djokovic hit an excellent, high-kicking second serve that forced Federer back, and on the next shot Federer flipped a weak backhand into the net. The crowd quieted again—all you could hear was Federer’s groan of frustration—and Djokovic won the next three points to hold serve and re-steady the ship. At Wimbledon this year, Djokovic had used his first serve to foil Federer; at the O2, it was his second serve that did the job. He won 84 percent of his second-serve points, and repeatedly pushed Federer back by kicking the ball into his body. Djokovic took, you might say, the SABR out of Federer’s hand.

While Djokovic's play recalled his 2015 Slam-final performances in a positive way, Federer's recalled his in a negative way. On Tuesday, Federer had confidently sliced and diced his way through Djokovic in 77 minutes in a round-robin meeting. On Sunday, though, with the title on the line, Federer was a different player. Instead of mixing things up, he pressed. Instead of choosing his spots, he forced the issue. Instead of holding confidently, he fell behind early in his service games with mistakes. Instead of pulling the trigger and connecting from the ground, he missed: Federer committed 31 unforced errors to Djokovic’s 14. The mid-court forehands that had been going for winners this week were suddenly sailing over the baseline or dropping into the net.

“Maybe at times I went for too much,” Federer said. “The moments where I should have gone safe, I didn’t, and vice versa. Those are the two regrets I have.”

The two matches that Djokovic and Federer played last week in London were, in a sense, a repeat of the matches they played at the Cincinnati Masters and the U.S. Open this summer. Each time it was Federer who won the warm-up, and Djokovic who won the main event.

In Cincy, a net-storming Federer blitzed Djokovic in 90 minutes. Three weeks later at Flushing Meadows, though, it was Djokovic who found his game, and Federer who lost his. I remember being surprised by the uncertainty in Federer’s eyes in the Open final. Hadn’t he just beaten Djokovic three weeks earlier? Didn’t he hear the 23,000 people roaring his name? Why, now, did he look as if he were trying to climb Mt. Everest?

In London, Federer played his first match against Djokovic with the same slashing confidence that he had shown in Cincy; he played his second, more important match against him with the same uncertainty that he had shown in New York. Federer closed his otherwise outstanding 2015 with a double fault.

*****

If Federer’s backhand error at 3-3, 15-15 defined his season against Djokovic, Djokovic’s backhand winner on the first point at 4-4 defined his own season.

When the world No. 1 took the balls to serve, the O2 crowd was again on its feet for Federer. In the previous game, the Swiss had saved three break points by making five straight first serves. For the first time, Djokovic had begun to bark at his camp in agitation. Was Djokovic going to trip at the finish line, as he had against Federer in the second set at Indian Wells this year? Not quite—this time, their 2015 history didn’t repeat itself.

Instead, Djokovic fired a backhand that caught the sideline for a winner. The audience was silenced; Federer’s momentum was extinguished. Djokovic held at love with another backhand winner, and broke for the title. How many pro-Federer crowds had Djokovic silenced with similar shots this year? How many times this season had he allowed an opponent to gather some momentum, only to extinguish it again with a similar stroke of brilliance?

“I was more solid from the back of the court,” Djokovic said, when asked to compare this match with his first one against Federer last week. “I served well when I needed to. I got myself out of trouble. I returned more balls back than I did five days ago. I think that helped me to get into the rally. I always try to make him play one extra shot.”

That may sound like a humble self-assessment from a world No. 1, but doing those humble things is how you get to No. 1 in the first place, and Djokovic has built a towering season on their foundation in 2015. He finishes with 11 titles, including three majors and a record six Masters; an 82-6 record; and a record 15 straight finals, in 16 events. He also closed the year by vanquishing his two old rivals, Rafael Nadal and Federer, in London. This weekend marked the first time those two legends had been straight-setted in back-to-back matches.

Most impressive of all may have been Djokovic’s 31-5 record against the Top 10. It reminded me of the way Djokovic went about his business this season. You could see it on Sunday in the way he bent low, over and over, to dig out Federer’s slice with his two-handed backhand and power it back crosscourt. Djokovic didn’t always make it look easy in 2015, but he always got down and did the heavy lifting.

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