January 28, 2016 — Scene: Rod Laver Arena, Melbourne Park, Australia. Men’s singles semifinal between world number one and number-one seed, Novak Djokovic, and world number three and number-three seed, Roger Federer. Head-to-head tied at 22-22, as action commences. (Note: roof open.)
ACT I — SuperNova(k)
Little did we know just how fast a player of Novak Djokovic’s abilities and talents could fly when engaging dreams of superhuman mastery over all that is tennis. Yet we found out in the first two sets what was possible from him and, as an adjunct, what could be possible from child tennis prodigies. Because you can bet that one of these kids will come to mimic Djokovic’s brilliance in the not too distant future.
Meanwhile, fans witnessed a beatdown of their beloved hero Federer that seemed to turn tennis away from the graceful and toward the brutal. Djokovic recovered from the outer court limits, moved easily to the next shot, redirected the ball with alacrity while handing himself chances and proving those chances real, as Federer fell behind, reacted, and was forced to play an unlikely game of defense … not his strong suit.
Simply put, Djokovic could not miss. Could do no wrong. At the close of the second set, which was about an hour into the match, Djokovic had wracked up 17 winners and 5 unforced errors. Upwards to 15,000 people inside this Grand Slam’s show court went silent, gagged by disbelief of what they’d witnessed. Commentators, too, were subdued … an extremely unlikely scenario in an age when opinion reigns supreme and continual mutterings take on monumental meaning.
“I played unbelievable first two sets,” Djokovic told ESPN, after winning 6-1 6-2 3-6 6-3, and propelling himself into his 17th consecutive final.
“Tennis from another planet,” Thomas Johansson, 2002 Australian Open champion, tweeted.
“I’m seeing something tonight that I have never seen before,” Jim Courier echoed.
And from Federer, after the match, “When he gets on a roll, it’s tough to stop.”
Djokovic is well known for his aggressive and precise return of serve. Tonight, his service sword was honed perfectly, as well. In the first set he won 91% of points on is first serve and 60% of points on his second serve. In the second set, he won 86% and 80% respectively of points on first and second serves. He had no unforced errors for the set and won twice as many points as Federer.
“I played flawless tennis for [the] first two sets, no doubt,” Djokovic said. “I came out with, I think, a great deal of self-belief and confidence and intensity and concentration.”
ACT II – In Which Roger Gets His Oats
Federer, of course, did not throw in the towel. And fans were completely on his side. They broke out in boisterous applause as he stood at the baseline to begin the third set. Commentators compared the din to that of a national football contest.
“I talk about it every time, especially at the end of a tournament, how thankful I am for the crowd,” Federer said. “It’s a big part of why I’m still playing today.”
In the sixth game of the third, Federer earned his first break points of the match. The score was 15-40, Djokovic. An unreturnable serve, followed by a Federer forehand error brought them to deuce. Then, they exchanged ad-ins and ad-outs until the clock ticked off 10-plus minutes. Only then did Federer inch ahead 4-2. Applause rocked Rod Laver Arena, once again.
Federer had found some rhythm, which was missing from the first two sets as Djokovic buzzed the court like a bee in a field of blooming flowers. Novak’s level had fallen a touch, too, and he knew he would have to concentrate harder on his game, on his abilities. There was no time for a wandering mind.
“After two sets you start to think the player of Roger’s caliber will start playing better, will change a few things,” Novak said, after the match. “I think he started raising his first-serve percentage. He used his slice, short slice, and court positioning very well. He started to be more aggressive. He deserved to win that one.”
People will debate how a roof can swing momentum, but fact is tournament officials interrupted the match before the fourth set by doing just that … they decided to close the roof. Both camps rumbled about the decision; however, they knew before the start that that was possible with weather patterns looking unpredictable.
ACT III — One False Move
They stayed on serve in the fourth, as Djokovic seemed more human and Federer relaxed. He’d come back nine times from two sets down; no reason he couldn’t do it again. At 4-3, on serve Djokovic, there were no deuce points or break point chances.
Federer was two points away from evening the set and, perhaps forcing a fifth, when he threw in three second-set return misses. As sure as the sun rises, Djokovic took advantage of the fumbles and broke to serve out the match.
“At the end of the day, your convictions are bigger than your doubts,” Djokovic told ESPN on court. “It was a battle at the end.”
Djokovic’s victory nudged him higher on the list of greats. Sunday he vies for his sixth Australian Open title. If he wins, he will tie Aussie Roy Emerson’s record.
Djokovic has had his way with Federer in the last three Grand Slams. In the finals of Wimbledon and the U. S. Open, and, now the semifinal of the Australian Open. Novak will meet Milos Raonic or Andy Murray on Sunday. Neither one has much of a chance.
Djokovic now owns his top rivals, with winning records over Federer (23-22), Rafael Nadal (24-23) and Andy Murray (21-9).