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Finals preview: Federer and Djokovic race to the finish line

Despite its odd name (and even odder acronym), the World Tour Finals has turned into a nice little round-up to the year. There is symmetry and order in the players who show up, there is drama and intrigue thanks to the round-robin format, and most importantly, there is quality tennis. It has helped, of course, that the tournament has made a bit of a home for itself at the O2 arena in London; where else would you find the crowd giving less support to the local hero (Andy Murray) than to his foreign opponent (Roger Federer)?

If you wanted further validation for the significance of the tournament, there can be none better than the final that it has given us: Novak Djokovic and Roger Federer, ranked one and two in the world, getting ready to face off one last time in 2012.

There’s no question that the crowd support will once again be highly skewed in the final; it’s hard to imagine the spectators not being overwhelmingly in Federer’s favor tonight. Djokovic may be the World No. 1, but Federer is still the veteran darling with a long line of Wimbledon titles against his name. Will that bother Djokovic? If his past record is any indication, the lack of crowd support might actually work in Djokovic’s favor. Remember the French Open quarterfinal against Frenchman Jo-Wilfried Tsonga earlier this year? Or the US Open quarterfinal against Andy Roddick in 2008? There’s nothing better than a group of rowdy hecklers to stir the beast within the Serb and make him go on the all-out attack. And while those stiff upper lipped Londoners might not exactly qualify as ‘rowdy hecklers’, they can certainly do their share of Djokovic-baiting.

Of course, crowd support is probably the least of either player’s concerns at the moment. Neither has looked in impeccable form through the tournament; Federer put on a bit of a horror show against David Ferrer even though he escaped with a straight sets victory, while Djokovic had his own version of Mayhem City in the first set of his match against Murray. Still, the Serb ought to be the more confident player coming into the final – he hasn’t lost a match in the event despite not playing at his best, which is a clear sign that he’s playing at a higher level than the rest of the men’s field at the moment.

The semifinals yesterday were vintage, idiosyncratic performances by the two men in more ways than one. Federer went for his shots and attacked the net on the crucial points of his match against Murray, which unnerved the Scot and made him rush his groundstrokes. Additionally, his safe-but-solid second serve returning was like a throwback to his glory days of yore: Federer put every single one of Murray’s 34 second serves back in play. Djokovic, on the other hand, weathered a Del Potro storm in the first half of his semifinal by employing his quintessentially elastic defence, eventually wearing down the Argentine and forcing him into making errors.

I’m willing to bet my house that we’ll be seeing more of the same in tonight’s final: Federer trying to take control of points through attacking, reflexive tennis, and Djokovic trying to hit back with his baseline solidity.

The keys to success for the two men will be the usual suspects. Federer will need to put in a good first serve percentage, keep the points as short as possible, and minimize his backhand errors. And while the keys to success for Djokovic aren’t exactly the reverse, they come close: he would need to keep the points as long as possible, mix in the down-the-line backhand while attacking the Federer backhand,  and put pressure on Federer’s first serve by relentlessly pummeling the second serve.

Federer holds a 16-12 advantage in his head-to-head record against Djokovic, but their matches this year have been evenly split: out of the four matches they’ve played, each has won twice. And while their rivalry has been known for producing electrifying, fast-paced tennis in the past, their matches this year have been strangely underwhelming. In the first two clashes, both on clay (Rome and Paris), Federer looked like he’d rather be anywhere but on the court, allowing Djokovic to cruise to comfortable wins. The next two matches (Wimbledon and Cincinnati), the situation was reversed, with Djokovic looking distinctly off-colour, and Federer taking advantage to post easy victories. In the year when the Murray-Djokovic rivalry has made its first real step towards the pantheon of the definitive rivalries of this generation, the Federer-Djokovic rivalry has taken a disappointing backseat.

Will the rivalry revert to its pre-2012, high octane form tonight? Or will we see an anti-climactic encounter to end the year on a low note? I’m leaning towards the former, purely because of the stakes involved. For Federer, winning a record 7th year-end championship at a venue he’s in love with would be the perfect end to a cathartic year. And for Djokovic, a title here would be a fitting culmination to his fall surge, while also validating his No. 1 ranking. And oh, did I mention that in the eyes of most tennis watchers, the winner tonight would also have bragging rights to the ‘player of the year’ title?

There’s a lot to play for in London tonight. And judging from Djokovic’s recent performances under pressure, it’s not a stretch to imagine that he’ll be the last man standing once again.

Prediction: Djokovic in three sets

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