Roger Federer vs Novak Djokovic, 2016 Australian Open Semi-Final: A preview
The match is upon us.
Come Thursday, Serbia’s Novak Djokovic and Switzerland’s Roger Federer, the world’s number 1 and 3 players respectively, will contest a highly anticipated semi-finals match at the Rod Laver Arena, in the 2016 Australian Open. When the draw was released a couple of weeks ago, most tennis commentators, pundits and fans alike singled this match out as the biggest match of the tournament. The draw has been kind to both guys. They haven’t had to play either an Andy Murray, a Rafael Nadal or Stan Wawrinka to get to this stage.
How have they been faring?
Roger Federer’s performance in the tournament has been vintage and Novak Djokovic’s solid, at best. Roger handled David Goffin and Tomas Berdych with consummate ease in the fourth round and quarter finals matches respectively. Generally speaking, his majestic forehand has been firing on all cylinders, particularly the inside-out forehand. The backhand has held up quite well too. He is taking the backhand ever so early, ripping them cross court and sometimes down-the-line, very essential traits against Novak. His net play has been solid; though, he has sometimes preferred to stay back rather than rushing to the net. A ploy that I am quite happy about considering that under Stefan Edberg’s tutelage, Roger sometimes approached the net at the wrong times or with the wrong approach shots. Watching Roger’s game, one gets a feeling that he has put in the hard miles behind his backhand and the return of serve. He is coming over the backhand returns a bit more than usual. The serve has, predictably, been thoroughly dependable.
What to say of Djokovic. The Serb had arguably the greatest season of all time in 2015 and came into the tournament thrashing one of his greatest rivals (Rafael Nadal) 6-1, 6-2 in the Australian Open tune-up tournament at Doha, Qatar. In this tournament, one gets a feeling that the Serbinator is yet to fully show his world-class repertoire. His performance in the tournament has been somewhat solid, but inexplicable at times. His match against Gilles Simon is a case in point. The match went the distance where the Serb committed an ungodly 100 unforced errors. His performance against Kei Nishikori was much better though. However, Novak himself didn’t look too pleased with his performance but one gets a feeling that the Serb is now in the groove, and come Thursday, we will see a different animal. He plays familiar foe and a guy he has beaten 22 times (Roger too has beaten Novak 22 times). If Novak wins the match, he will have a positive head-to-head against the Swiss for the first time in their storied careers. Something he just managed to achieve against Nadal in Doha, Qatar.
There are no secrets between the Serb and the Swiss going into their semi-finals match. Of course, Novak goes into the match with a definite edge and not without reasons. The world number 1 has been the only man standing between the Swiss Maestro and an unprecedented 18 grand slam title. Over the last couple of years, the sinewy Serb has beaten the Maestro in all the matches played at the Grand Slam level. The finals at Wimbledon 2014 and 2015 and the finals at the US Open 2015. These are the biggest wins one can have in our sport and these victories play a major part in Novak’s belief that he can get the job done once again. The world’s best hard court player has the ability to raise his game a couple of notches, especially against Roger in the crunch moments and one gets a sense that when the going gets tough, Novak raises his levels to unbelievably heights, both mental and physical.
Look at the tactics
Let’s round up by taking a look at the tactics that both men will look to bear in their match. The steely Serb won’t look to change anything, why would he, with all the recent successes he has had against the Swiss Master. So, expect him to play a solid match from the back of the court. Expect him to serve high percentages and look to dictate from the baseline using that lethal combination of court position, athleticism and defense. He will look to dictate game from the baseline, trying to pin Roger to long, exhausting and ultimately fruitful cross-court baseline rallies, directed at Roger’s relatively weaker wing, his backhand. You could also expect him to dictate play using that gorgeous two-hander of his, changing directions at will, and moving Roger around the baseline, particularly deep to his forehand / right side by hitting down-the-line backhands that should yield great dividends of course. You can count on the Serb to deliver some fantastic returns of serve. The greatest returner of the modern game versus arguable the most effective sever of all time.
Federer would look to start aggressive and stay that way the entire match. The serve would of course play big part on the outcome of the match, followed by how the Swiss can manage that greatest shot of modern tennis, his lethal forehand. He would look to land a forehand at every opportunity he gets. It would be interesting to see how he manages backhand better. Will he take more chances off the returns to get into the points early?.I would like to see him hit a majority of his approach shots to Djokovic’s forehand rather than the backhand. I feel this is one area where Roger has not fully committed to when playing Novak. On almost all key points, he tends to approach the Novak backhand rather than go into the relatively weaker forehand of the Serb. This tactic introduces some unpredictability into Roger’s approach shots and it keeps Novak guessing.
In all his previous losses to Novak at the Grand Slam level, during crucial passages of the match Roger let his guard down, ever so slightly, and that decided the outcome of the match. He needs to be a bit more careful this time and aware of such moments; especially, the first few games after a really tight set. This is where Novak can camouflage his feelings, and lull the opponents into thinking that he is down-and-out, only to see Novak raise his game by a few notches and get that crucial break. Roger tends to get a bit passive mid-matches and ends up squandering multiple break point opportunities (remember the US Open finals!!). He definitely needs to tidy up that part of his game, his Achilles’ heel, throughout his career.
New coach on-board and concluding thoughts
There is another interesting storyline to this match. It remains to be seen what Federer’s new coach, Ivan Ljubicic, brings to the table in this crucial match. Many wondered aloud that one of the reasons why Roger brought Ivan on board was to offer a fresh perspective on how to beat Novak. Ivan’s test is well and truly here. Would Ljubicic tell Federer to play an aggressive baseline game with only occasional forays into the net or an ultra-aggressive net-rushing game? Would he tell Roger that his baseline game, even though Roger is nearing 35 years of age, is good enough to beat the Novak’s legendary retrieval skills? Ivan may have a point there. In the recent Wimbledon and US Open finals, Roger had the upper hand in some crucial baseline exchanges but he let that advantage slip by making unsuccessful forays into the net. Another question on my mind is would he encourage Roger to more frequently run around the backhand and hit his majestic forehand? At a crucial juncture in the match, I wouldn’t mind Roger trying this tactic. It has paid-off on some big matches against Rafa and certain other opponents in the past. It may well pay off against Novak, and help the now nearly 35-year old Swiss legend achieve a result that not many believe he is capable of and propel him into another Grand Slam finals.