So far, the big guns hadn’t really been tested. Rafael Nadal bowed out last night, but tamely with injury, and without much of a fight. To be honest, I didn’t watch, but this Australian Open match between Novak Djokovic and Roger Federer promised good things. I had good memories about this match-up. Their US Open semi-final was by far my favourite match of last year, so there was a lot to live up to.
It felt like I wasn’t the only one with that epic match in the back of their minds. Djokovic and Federer came out with a certain respect against each other. They brought all their weapons out, their intensity, everything to the table. It was like tennis being played at a lightning speed, though it wasn’t exactly consistent to start with. It was more about sending the right message across. Federer tried to show that he’d be aggressive on return while Djokovic brought out the big forehand and they both traded blows.
I wasn’t really sure whether it was the best idea for either of them to be playing everything at such a rapid pace, since hitting it harder isn’t necessarily better and variety can be quite useful sometimes. The difference between these two hitting it harder, and other players is that their athleticism is quite spectacular. Both were so eager to take control of the points, and also perhaps wary that anything less wouldn’t be good enough. It reminds me of the post-match interview Djokovic did at the US Open last year when he was asked about what was going through his mind down match points. He replied by saying, he just tried to hit every forehand as hard as possible. That memory had obviously stuck with him, bringing out the big forehand here right from the start.
I like to watch Djokovic’s forehand because it’s such a free-swinging shot, not as restrained from precise technique and movement as most other players. Actually, his movement and athleticism is a lot like that too, and one of the main reasons why I enjoy watching him. Watching a guy slide around and stretching out wide from side-to-side is great entertainment, if it’s used with the right amount of aggression. And I really needed to include that last point to find a way to exclude Monfils out of that list. But it’s also a big advantage in a tennis sense, a strength which allows Djokovic to play with patience, and makes him more likely to win extended rallies.
The match was relatively even until the first set tie-break, where Djokovic proved himself to be the steadier player. Federer shanked too many shots, as he did during the entire match. Did he make too many errors because he tried to hit everything at a fast pace, instead of mixing it up?
Djokovic went up an early break in the second set, then Federer employed a change of tactics. I’d say he started to play a style more suited to his abilities on the backhand side, using a slower pace and hitting more slice backhands. This drew some errors from Djokovic, who had also dropped his intensity, then Federer was back on serve.
As the match was going on, the commentators had been wondering whether Federer had been feeding Djokovic too much pace. After all, there have been a couple of matches in the past where Andy Murray took apart Djokovic by feeding as many off-pace slices to his forehand as possible. I think Federer could have explored that more, or at least stuck with a clear idea.
For a while, Federer went on a tear, going from an early break down to serving for the second set, but he couldn’t serve it out. Djokovic had put him under too much pressure, and Federer was not up to the challenge today. On important points, Djokovic can play these long, intense rallies, the kind of points that have made some of his encounters with Rafael Nadal highly entertaining over the years. I don’t know how to describe it. It’s a brilliant combination of aggressive and defensive play, and Federer’s not going to win many points in these kind of rallies. Djokovic broke back, and the match started to look much like it did at the start. I don’t really know where Federer’s brief change of tactics went. But I’m not sure whether 10 minutes of it is enough evidence to suggest that it could have worked.
By the third set, the match started to play out in a way that heavily favoured Djokovic’s strengths, though the rallies were still competitive and quite good at times. Federer continued to try to drive through the backhand, and shanked too many. By the third set, he had run out of ideas and played a more reactive style, particularly not doing much on the backhand side apart from driving it back crosscourt, opening up the down-the-line for Djokovic.
Djokovic lost his break of serve at 4-3, and I wasn’t sure what happened there. It was against the overall direction of the match, but it didn’t take long for Djokovic to bounce back, and show exactly why he was leading this match. He threw in another one of those good games filled with intense baseline play, where he does just about everything he can to win a point. It’s a combination of amazing determination, eye-catching athleticism and a rush of adrenaline. Federer lost that game with errors, but it would have been awfully hard not to make one against Djokovic in this mentality. Djokovic showed his first sign of nerves serving it out making two bad errors on the surprisingly reliable forehand (for the night) but he got it together and finished it off 7-6(3) 7-5 6-4.