It looks like 2016 is starting the same way 2015 ended, with Novak Djokovic and Roger Federer squaring off on the biggest stages, their rivalry maintaining its position as the most thrilling in today’s game.
It’s a match-up millenials would refer to as ultimate popcorn-tennis. Both players are in ridiculous form and even though Djokovic had one off day in the fourth round, it must be said that his opponent, Gilles Simon, played a bigger role than many gave him credit for in forcing the world No. 1 to make errors and scrape through in five sets.
One theme prevalent in Federer’s matches this fortnight is efficiency. He has spent almost three and half hours less than Djokovic on court and has been going around his business with almost surgical precision. The world No. 3’s winner-unforced error differential from his first five matches is an impressive +58, while Djokovic’s is -5, although the Serb’s figure is greatly affected by the 100 errors he struck against Simon.
It’s interesting that of the 11 grand slam semi-final defeats Federer has suffered throughout his career, more than half of them (six) have come in Melbourne – two of which were at the hands of Djokovic. Meanwhile, Djokovic has won the Australian Open title every single time he has reached the semi-finals here. These could be merely statistics but they are rather telling and it could translate into more or less confidence within each player.
Last year, Federer beat Djokovic three times while the world No. 1 had the upper hand in the remaining five. All of Federer’s wins though came in best-of-three matches and Djokovic won both grand slam finals they played at Wimbledon and the US Open.
While Federer was playing great at both those tournaments and those two finals, it was evident that over best-of-five clashes, Djokovic has the mental edge. It feels like Federer is unable to sustain his mental toughness for that extended period of time. The Swiss legend will face the same challenge on Thursday.
He’s taking on a monumental task. Djokovic, as a five-time champion at Melbourne Park between 2008 and 2015, has a stronghold on the place. Playing him here has become a daunting mission, equal in magnitude as playing Rafael Nadal at Roland Garros between 2005 and 2014.
Last year, Federer beat Djokovic in the Dubai final by having the serving day of his life. The 34-year-old will need to find that serving groove against Djokovic, and perhaps bring out the SABR – the Sneak-Attack by Roger shot that annoyed so many of his opponents in the second half of last season.
Owning the net will aid his cause although Djokovic is a great passer so Federer has got to be as clinical as he can be up front. With showers forecasted again, the match will most probably be played with the Rod Laver Arena roof closed and while Federer is great indoors, Djokovic has lost one indoor match in the last three years.
It could be a tighter match than their recent grand slam encounters but still all roads lead to Djokovic and it’s hard to imagine a final without him in it. The fact that they’re playing each other in a semi-final and not a final could mean something different for Federer, as facing Djokovic in a major final is close to mission impossible. In the semis, it’s more like mission probably not possible. Tiny difference. Maybe it’ll matter.