Roger Federer reminds the world of his class at Shanghai
As the much hyped semi-final kicked off, Federer’s intent appeared clear from the onset – unbridled aggression combined with a high-risk high-return game plan. The logic was perhaps based on the idea that, in the event of a baseline slugfest, the longer the match went on, the greater would be the probability of the younger and fitter Serb dominating. What followed was an old-school display of serve and volley by the Swiss maestro, often reaching and exceeding the high standards set by his coach during his hey-day. The net-play, in my opinion, was a tad overdone, with few of the approach shots looking glaringly amateurish, but Federer’s tennis was, throughout the match, in a single word – brave.
In the 5th game of the match, Federer had the Serb down at 15-40, and broke through after squandering one of the break-points. Though 3-2 up and looking to hold for a two game lead, the Swiss came under heavy fire from the workmanlike Djokovic, who pushed the game to deuce, and sent down a lovely passing shot to set up his first and only break-point of the match. Federer managed to save it, and held on for a 4-2 lead. After the Serb won a difficult service game, the crowd were treated to a rare sight – that of Federer sending down four consecutive aces in a 47 second service game to go up 5-3. He was not as confident while serving for the set, falling behind 15-30 before closing it out with yet another thundering ace.
Continuing his rich vein of form, Federer broke Djokovic in the very first game of the second set, with a dazzling display of tennis which left the world number one floundering like a novice. The early break seemed to bring out the Serb’s ‘A’ game to the table, and the next few games contained some of the most scintillating tennis witnessed in recent times. As much as it was a battle between two great players giving it their all, also on display was the clash of two different tennis styles – Federer’s old-school court craft against Djokovic’s modern power hitting. Down 1-3, the number one seed dug deep to save four break-points against the Swiss, who was playing at his peak of his capabilities, wielding the racquet like a wand. The television commentator hinted that the biggest comebacks in tennis history have happened from a similar situation, when a double-break in a decisive set had been avoided with difficulty. For a while, his words seemed ominous, with Federer going down 0-30 in his very next service game, before sustained aggression saw him close out the game.
The final few games were nerve-wracking, with service games of both players being subject to tremendous pressure. The longest game of the match, close to 20 minutes, came on Federer’s serve, with him leading 4-3. The game witnessed five deuces, with Djokovic getting more frustrated with each missed opportunity, and the Swiss, calm as ever on the outside, getting more daring with each passing shot, and amazingly pulling it off more often than not. Down 3-5, and serving to stay in the match, Djokovic went down 30-40, giving Federer his first match-point. An immaculate serve and volley brought up deuce, but the Swiss once again forced an advantage, bringing up his second match-point. Displaying nerves of steel, Djokovic came up with an excellent serve under pressure, and then held the game to make it 4-5. Federer began the all-important game poorly, falling behind 15-30, but continued going for the winners without any traces of nervousness. An ace set up his third match-point, and a couple of brilliant volleys closed out the match 6-4, 6-4 in 1 hour and 35 minutes.
The score-line and game-duration may look ordinary in the context of the modern game, but this was one of the best tennis matches in my recent memory, particularly the 2nd set, where two of the greatest exponents of the game were playing at their very best. Djokovic acknowledged perfection on display at the other end during his brief court interview:
“I think I did not play too bad. It’s just that he played everything he wanted to play. He played the perfect match. I think he’s going to tell you how he felt, but that’s how I felt he played. He played an amazing match.”
This match, and the subsequent victory over Simon of course, which elevated him to number two in rankings and within striking distance of the top spot, fuels belief that Swiss maestro may yet have a couple of years of top-notch tennis left in his tank, and the elusive 18th Grand Slam may be around the corner. However, irrespective of whether that happens or it, this performance was a startling reminder to the world that, when at his prime, he can easily dominate and defeat the best in the world.