Roger Federer dethroned as King of the 02
Novak Djokovic ended Roger Federer’s reign as the king of the O2 Arena in a brilliant final at the Barclays ATP World Tour Finals in London on Monday night.
You will not see many tennis seasons to live with the one we have just witnessed, and you will not see many finals to equal the supreme quality that Novak Djokovic and Roger Federer produced last night.
The very last point of the year summed up what had gone before. Federer hit what looked like an unanswerable approach shot into the backhand corner, only for Djokovic to get into his patented splits position and manufacture a clean passing shot down the line.
It is this sort of inspiration, and this sort of drama, that gives tennis a claim — even in the wake of the London Olympics — to be the sport of the year. And Djokovic, whose ability to conjure impossible strokes is up there on the Harry Potter scale, has confirmed himself as the rightful world No 1.
Last night, Djokovic dedicated the win to his father Srdjan, who is still in intensive care in Belgrade after a long battle with a respiratory infection. “Coming into this tournament, having my father fighting his own fight for health gave me extra strength,” he said. “I wanted to play for him in a way.
“At a certain stage, it was very critical, but now he’s recovering. I’m going to visit him tomorrow, bring a trophy with me and at least make him smile.”
After chiselling out the final piece of his latest masterpiece, Djokovic was too pumped-up to perform the usual winner’s ritual of lying down on the court. He was high on the sheer adrenalin of what he had just done, because when Djokovic plays at his best, he seems to be channelling a higher power.
Who has the accuracy to plant two balls smack onto the line in the same rally, as Djokovic did on break point in the penultimate game of the match?
The confidence he has built up over two years of global dominance is so great that he is able to relax and let his body perform miracles on his behalf. You fancy he could hit his serve blindfolded, like a Jedi knight.
Certainly his uncanny flexibility would be the envy of many a yogi or Indian fakir.
At the end, Federer blinked and wondered how he had been beaten in a stadium that might as well be his front room. He had not lost a live match on this court since 2009.
Djokovic, meanwhile, was a blur of energy, whirling his hands in a disco dance of delight as he made his way forward to the net. It was his 75th win of the year — the most by any player on the tour — and it must have been particularly satisfying to reverse the polarities against Federer, who had won their two most recent matches. He goes home with £1.1 million in prize money after staying unbeaten throughout the event.
There is usually a lot of brotherly love exhibited among the so-called “Big Four”, who know that squeaky-clean brings you more sponsors than spiky and edgy. But there has been tension between these two players ever since Federer told Djokovic’s parents to pipe down in the stands.
So was it mind games yesterday when Federer emerged first, amid the dry ice that spouts forth from the O2’s player tunnel, and occupied the nearest bench? Even though that bench is understood to be the property of the higher-ranked player? Perhaps he is so used to being No 1 that he did not remember what happened a week ago, when he was knocked off the top of the standings. Still, Djokovic is sure to have noticed, and he may have stored up this piece of lèse-majesté for extra motivation.
The crowd, as on Sunday night, were favouring Federer from the start. There were not quite as many Swiss flags in the house, but when Djokovic aimed an exasperated kick at a ball at a low moment in the first set, he was roundly booed, just as Andy Murray had been booed for bashing his racket the day before.
All the way through this tournament, the first few games have often been misleading. Yesterday was no exception as Federer rushed to a 3-0 lead with a barrage of winners off both wings. But Djokovic “hung in there”, in his own words. And when the first set went to a tie-break, Federer coughed up four unforced errors to Djokovic’s one. Not that the term “unforced error” seems appropriate for this quality of tennis.
As Federer put it afterwards, “For me to miss a forehand after having three great reflex half-volleys from the baseline, to eventually miss a shot where you’re a little bit under pressure – it’s called an unforced error. For me, that is not worth the debate.”
In their 28 previous meetings, Djokovic had never lost after winning the first set, and he was not about to start here. Even though Federer served for the second, he could not find his way through the most resilient opponent of this or any other era.