We’ve frequently been told, in very poetic terms, of all the ‘magical’ things that Roger Federer can do on a tennis court. He doesn’t run, he waltzes. He ‘flies’ in the air when he hits his forehand. His backhand flicks are pure artistry. His volleys are like drops of unadulterated honey. Yawn, yawn, double yawn. After a while, it gets old – there is, after all, only so much breathless deification of a living mortal you can take. So it is perhaps a good thing that every once in a while, Federer reminds us of the boring, mechanical things that he can do well on a tennis court. In his Wimbledon semifinal victory over Novak Djokovic today, Federer repeatedly unleashed the oldest, and perhaps least celebrated, trick in the book – the big serve. None of us saw it coming. How could we? We are always so busy with the fancy, ‘beautiful’ stuff that we tend to ignore the less glamorous, but infinitely more effective, weapons in Federer’s arsenal.
Of course, the serve wasn’t the only thing that Federer did right today. The forehand, the footwork, and most notably, the backhand, were all in fine working order. He even got the better of Djokovic in a few backhand-to-backhand exchanges, and I’m sure none of us ever thought we’d live to see that. Federer was all-purpose, all-business right from the start of the match, with every aspect of his game. Still, nowhere was that efficient killer instinct more vivid than in his serve. He amped up the power, he hit his spots, he mixed it up – he did just about everything with his serve that his most ardent supporters would have wanted him to. Almost every time he looked remotely in trouble in a service game, he came up with an ace, a service winner or a two-shot putaway. I remember telling a friend of mine before the match that if Federer didn’t get at least 65% of first serves in, he would be toast. He ended up getting 64% of his first serves in, but on this day, that was enough to almost reduce Djokovic to toast. And ‘this day’ wouldn’t have happened without some help from his opponent.
If Federer seemed to have turned back the clock and reminded people of his glory days, Djokovic seemed to have turned back the clock too, but in a bad way. The man on the court today looked nothing like the winning machine that had been devouring everything and everyone in his path the last 1.5 years; instead, he looked like the pre-2011 Djokovic. The Serb missed so many routine backhands today that I lost count. He seemed unsure of his movement, and slipped on the grass at a very crucial point in the first set. Perhaps most importantly, though, he seemed to lack the signature self-belief that had carried him to so many battling wins in the recent past. When he gave up the early break in the first set, Djokovic did nothing much except slump his shoulders. When he broke Federer early in the second, instead of getting all pumped up, he seemed to merely coast his way till the completion of the set. And when he got broken while trying to stay in the set at 4-5 in the third, he simply seemed to give up the fight. This was pre-2011 Djokovic alright. But did anyone really miss that version of the Serb?
Maybe the other members of the Big Three did. Federer had lost 6 of his last 7 matches against Djokovic, the last three of them on the trot, and he would’ve been forgiven for going into this match feeling like the distinct underdog. It’s not a feeling that Federer is accustomed to, which is why it was perhaps more important for Djokovic to win the first set than it was for Federer. If Djokovic had taken the initiative and imposed his game early on, it might have put just enough doubts in Federer’s mind to bring the Swiss’s nerves into play. That didn’t happen, of course, and Federer rode his early momentum all the way to a record 8th Wimbledon final.
In many ways, this match was similar to the blowout semifinal the two contested last month at the French Open, even if the scores don’t suggest that. In Paris, Djokovic was efficient and effective, while Federer lacked any kind of intensity whatsoever. Today, the roles were reversed; Djokovic looked lacklustre, and Federer business-like.
And the turnaround makes sense too. Federer has never been completely comfortable on clay, but grass has always been his favorite surface. At Wimbledon, on Centre Court, with the entire crowd behind him, Federer looks more at home than anywhere else in the world. And here, he doesn’t need to bring out the flashy, magical stuff to win; the simple, mundane tricks are usually enough. They certainly were today.