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How ready is Roger Federer to take on Novak Djokovic?

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606   //    27 Jan 2016, 09:38 IST
Poetry in motion : Roger Federer at the Australian Open 2016

They say change in the only constant. But in order to be a constant force to reckon with, one has to endure change. And no one does it better than Roger Federer.

It is cliché to talk about how well he has been doing over the years when so many Champions have milled in and out of the tennis story. In spite of all the changes that Federer has made since late 2013 – be it his racquet or the coaching team – there has been one man called Novak Djokovic who has made his conquest for an 18th Slam almost insurmountable.

Though Federer is just one other player apart from Stan Wawrinka who defeated Djokovic in 2015, the tenacious Serb seems to have perfected the art of defying Federer the finish line in Grand Slams. With a blockbuster face off No.45 looming large on Thursday, it is kosher to analyse what might be brewing in Federer’s coaching camp to make sure he solves the Djokovic riddle in his 41st Grand Slam Semi Final appearance and a 12th Semi Final outing at the Melbourne park.

While the tennis fraternity slipped into a slumber during the off season, Federer at a ripe age of 34 decided to continue his globe-trotting with the International Tennis Premiere League. Djokovic on the other hand made the perfect decision to rest his body and train at Monte Carlo to script more glory in 2016.

Federer looked lackluster in the second edition of the IPTL but hogged limelight by announcing the inclusion of Ivan Ljubicic in his coaching team. Ljubicic , a former player and coach who knows Djokovic’s game really well, already seems to have  worked with Federer on ironing out some creases in his game as indicated by the Swiss Maestro’s performance so far in 2016.

Barring the Bribane Open Final that an ailing Federer lost to Raonic, Federer has definitely shown some marked improvement in certain departments that let him down in 2015 against Djokovic. Having come through some very tricky opponents like Dolgopolov, Dimitrov and Berdych Federer may be ready for Djokovic this time around.

The new found unwavering intensity

In 2015 Federer’s intensity, on more occasions than one, wavered in his Grand Slam encounters against Djokovic. This cost him dearly in two Wimbledon and one US Open Finale. In each of those encounters Djokovic sniffed a drop in Federer’s intensity from across the net and stepped up his game to romp home with the win.

In his journey to the Semi Finals, at the ongoing Australian Open, Federer has been playing with an unwavering intensity that has arrested momentum shifts in key matches. Apart from the one set that Federer dropped against Dimitrov, that could be probably be attributed to the closed roof and time required to adjust to the new conditions, he ensured no momentum swings against the dangerous Tomas Berdych.

Fine tuning the service

Federer’s secret sauce is his effective serving. His service games are typically short especially when his first serve is on fire. In one of his recent post-match interviews he laid emphasis on fine tuning his service game as it is the only shot that is on his racquet. Rest of the time he is reacting to the opponent.

Federer displayed a service master class in his Semi Final against Murray at last year’s Wimbledon. However the same serve deserted him and turned out to be a liability when he needed it the most in the Wimbledon Final.

With Ivan Ljubicic, who stands sixth in the ATP list of career aces on all surfaces, Federer seems to have honed his serve further as it helped him get out of trouble in his Quarter Final clash against Berdych yesterday. Winning the First Set is critical in a five set format and Federer has so far not dropped the First Set in all his matches so far, courtesy the effective serving.

Back hand down the line firing consistently

Most opponents target the Federer backhand which is a vulnerable component of his game. When the backhand is on song, the opponents are kept on their back foot as Federer weaves a winning match moe often than not.

So far at the Aussie Open, Federer’s Backhand down the line has been quite a treat to watch.  Having fired a good number of winners from that flank he seems confident with making tweaks to it when it gives up on him at times. In his Quarter Final against Berdych, the back hand was finding the net during the initial stages of the match. He immediately went into damage control by giving it some more margins over the net and did not hold back in delivering scorching winners on finding his range.

Rock solid defense

Murray and Djokovic are two players who turn defense to offense with the flick of a switch. They grab the command over a point by using a crazy combination of power, precision and athleticism.

Federer’s movement around the court has been as majestic and fluid as ever. His defense has been impressive and he showed glimpses of turning defense to offense in his matches against Dimitrov and Berdych.

Will SABR be the surprise element?

Federer introduced the SABR – Sneak Attack By Roger – at Cincinnati and mind numbed Djokovic with it in the Final. Djokovic did overcome it with some precise lobs in the US Open Final.

The SABR has been in the cold storage since the start of this season. Though Federer did work on it a lot during his training block at Dubai, it has still not found its way into his game this season. When questioned by Jim Courier in an on court interview following his victory over Berdych, Federer said that he would play it at least once in his next match as it requires a completely different mindset. It will be interesting to see how he uses it against Djokovic in their Semi Final on Thursday.

Will the night match not work in Federer’s favor?

The surface at the Australian Open is relatively slower compared to that at the US Open. Although Federer has a favorable record playing the night matches at Grand Slams over the years, the day matches at the Australian Open favor his style as the heat speeds things up much to his liking.

With his much awaited Semi Final clash against Djokovic being a night match, it could favor the Serb more than the Swiss who likes that little extra time for each of his groundstrokes.

With an evenly poised head to head, both men will leave no stone unturned in trying to score a win over the other. Both Champions have a lot at stake. They have now been pitted against each other in the race to the 100 million. A title for Djokovic would tie him with the great Roy Emerson at 6 Australian Open titles and a title for Federer would lay to rest the question of winning an 18th Slam.

Federer does seem readier than ever to face the Serb. It all boils down to how well he executes his game plan from start to finish which is a tall order. After all, it is the Era of the Novak.

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