Australian Open diary: The relentless Novak Djokovic and the helpless Roger Federer
You know it's a big match when you aren't guaranteed a place in the stadium despite having media accreditation. And when even the likes of Harsha Bhogle and VVS Laxman can't get prime seats, the expectations really go through the roof.
Roger Federer vs Novak Djokovic was a big match alright, and the World No. 1 took that label very seriously. A primetime show demanded Hollywood play, but through the first two sets he produced much more than that; it looked like Djokovic was playing to not just achieve personal glory, but to burn permanent scars into Federer’s psyche, turning him into an object of pity rather than awe.
When Federer suffers a lopsided scoreline in a set, it is always assumed that he is off his game or undergoing some kind of discomfort. But today, aside from his first service game, he did very little wrong. He was quick, powerful and efficient, and against any other player he would likely have won the first set 6-3 or 6-4.
But Djokovic, as we all know by now, isn't just any player. He came out hitting his returns and groundstrokes so forcefully that the pro-Federer crowd was stunned into silence. I'm not kidding here; they weren't silent because they were disappointed or sad. They were silent because it was all happening too quickly, and they didn't have the time to react.
I like to use the phrase ‘jaw-dropping’ a lot, but I know it never describes an event honestly. How many things can really make your jaw drop? But as I saw Djokovic timing EVERYTHING to perfection and getting back even the hardest of shots with ease, I was actually left with my mouth open. This wasn't real; it couldn't be. Is that guy even human? How was it even possible for him to be that quick, that consistent, that powerful, that relentless?
The stats sheet will say that Federer made too many unforced errors, and that he couldn't get enough first serves in. But what the stats don't reveal is that when so many of Federer’s first serves and big groundstrokes came back with interest, he had no option but to aim for the lines and try and go bigger with each swing. He HAD to take more risk, or he'd be left a sitting duck to Djokovic’s tremendous weight of shot.
Predictably, as Federer started aiming for the lines, he started missing more too. And his problems were compounded because Djokovic on the other end was targeting the lines too – and finding them. This was no counterpunching, all-defensive performance from the Serb; this was, well, it was something else.
At one stage, Federer was struggling to win POINTS, let alone games. On his serve. After getting the first serve in. It was a steep uphill climb for the World No. 3, and I for one haven't seen him look so helpless since that 2008 French Open loss to Rafael Nadal.
A few hours ago we had seen Agnieszka Radwanska look desperate and out of ideas, flailing wildly at the ball as everything sped past her. Serena Williams can regularly do that to an opponent, but today Djokovic showed that he can do it too. The Serb was ruthlessly efficient, and there was nothing that Federer could do to reverse the result of the match.
How Federer won a set against this version of Djokovic, I'll never know. But suffice to say the Swiss is a 17-time Slam champion for a reason, whose fighting qualities are never given enough credit. He dug deep in that third set, saving break points at the start of it, and eventually capitalised on an unexpected lull from Djokovic.
As Federer tried to serve out the set at 5-3, the noise in the arena reached a crescendo. I had gone out for a break two games earlier, and since you can't move between aisles except on a changeover, I was forced to wait in line for those final two games of the set. But I almost didn't need to watch; the crowd’s roars told me everything I needed to know.
Every point that Federer won was met with thunderous applause, and even some singing. Every point he lost was met with, well, a few tepid claps and a thousand disappointed groans. They desperately wanted him to make a last stand; they NEEDED him to win this set. And the champion that he is, he duly obliged.
Of course, that was only delaying the inevitable. The threat of rain forced the roof to be closed before the start of the fourth set, and the break allowed Djokovic to regain his razor-sharp focus from the first two sets. Federer did help him out a bit by dumping a few makeable returns into the net, but there was never any doubt who the eventual winner was going to be.
But this is Federer, and he was playing in front of a crowd that was expecting magic. So magic he did produce, as he and Djokovic staged a barn-burning point in the eighth game of the set, which Federer ended with a backhand down-the-line winner. The crowd erupted, Federer fist-pumped, and I rubbed my eyes in disbelief.
I would've said that that point alone was worth the price of admission, except that I didn't pay to get in. And even if I had paid the price of admission, I would've already got my money's worth during those first two spectacular sets. Today was Djokovic's day in every respect, and his performance will be talked about for years to come.
Federer was asked at his press conference whether Djokovic’s play in those first two sets was the best he'd ever faced from anyone. The Swiss disagreed, saying that he had been at the receiving end of that kind of play from Djokovic himself in the past too. But maybe that's just Federer’s habit of downplaying the spectacular; when he was asked where he would rank that fourth set point among the best points of his career, he replied: “Top 100, maybe?”
Djokovic thought differently about his level of play early in the match; he said that it was the best he had ever played against Federer. Four days ago the Serb was answering questions about whether he had put on the worst performance of his career (against Gilles Simon in the fourth round). How does he go from the shoddy to the sublime in a matter of days?
Maybe all he needed was for Very Very Special Laxman to be in the audience.
Just kidding, of course. Djokovic can make that switch, because he's turned into the Serena Williams of the men's tour. There can be no higher compliment for him than that.