No one understands this notion better than Roger Federer, who secured the Shanghai Rolex Masters singles title yesterday as if he was Houdini. The Swiss Maestro had played Davis Cup for Switzerland the weekend after the U.S. Open, joining Stan Wawrinka to lead his nation into the Final against France. He then took some much needed time off over the next three weeks, went on a vacation, and returned to work in Shanghai. He was confronted by an inspired and crafty Leonardo Mayer. The No. 3 seed faced match point no fewer than five times in the latter stages of the final set, yet somehow survived, conceding later how lucky he had been to come through safely after such an ordeal.
Federer was rusty then, but not for long. He did not drop a set the rest of the week, toppling Novak Djokovic in a sparkling semifinal before overcoming the always obstinate and deceptively skilled Gilles Simon in a pair of tie-breaks. The week concluded for Federer just as it had commencedwith more good fortune. For the first time, Federer has won this prestigious Masters 1000 championship. He now stands 990 points behind Djokovic in the Race for London as they battle down the stretch of the season to determine who will conclude the season as the top ranked player in the world. If Federer manages to surpass Djokovic for the highly coveted No. 1 rankingwhich is now entirely possiblehe will surely look at Shanghai as a critical turning point in his quest for that honor.
Lets begin at the end, and work our way back. Having performed immaculately against Djokovic in the penultimate round, Federer knew he had to avoid a letdown against the Frenchman, a fellow long recognized as a major league pest. Simon is a brick wall from the back of the court, quick and cunning, and a counter-attacker supreme. He can appear to be a lightweight at times, steering his groundstrokes with good depth but little pace, luring his adversaries into errors. But he has the capacity to add sting to his shots at the right times and thus break the rhythm of those who take him on.
Simon upset Federer a couple of times at the end of the 2008 season, establishing a place for himself among the top ten in the world, finishing that stellar stationed at No. 7. He stepped back for a while but finished 2011 at No. 12, 2012 at No. 16 and 2013 at No. 19. This is one tough and resilient competitor. He had removed both Australian Open champion Wawrinka and No. 6 seed Tomas Berdych on his way to the final of Shanghai, reaching the title round at a Masters 1000 event for only the second time in his career. He was clearly not afraid of Federer. Not only had he achieved those two wins six years ago over the Swiss, but he has twice taken Federer to five sets at Grand Slam events.
Federer knew full well he would be in for a genuinely difficult struggle when he walked on court for the final, and that was precisely what happened. In the opening game, the 33-year-old was in disarray, and that is not the way to start a big match against the 29-year-old Frenchman. In that game, Federer was coaxed into a backhand down the line error for 15-15. He then pulled a forehand crosscourt wide for 15-30. Simon found the smallest of openings for a backhand down the line winner to make it 15-40, and then Federer was broken at 15 on a complete shank, missing a forehand down the line wildly over the baseline. He had allowed Simon the luxury of an immediate break on the basis of three costly unforced errors.
Simon settled into a nice rhythm from the baseline. Despite missing three out of four first serves, he held at love for 2-0. Federer answered with a love hold of his own, but Simon advanced to 3-1 by holding at 30 with more help from an error prone Federer. In that game, the Frenchman was two for six on first serves, but once again Federer failed to take advantage of the situation. Yet Federer served another fine game to hold at 15 for 2-3, getting every first serve in. Simon had no rhythm on serve but it did not matter. He missed three of five first serves in the sixth game but still held a 15 for 4-2 as Federer pulled a forehand inside-in wide. Plainly, Federers ground game was off key.
The Frenchman fought on purposefully, displaying his superior ball control, keeping Federer at bay with his timely changes of pace and direction. Federer was serving well now, holding at love in the seventh game with an ace down the T. But Simon advanced to 5-3 by holding at 30 for 5-3. He missed four of six first serves in that game, but held on as Federer made three unforced errors, including an errant forehand approach at 40-30 for Simon. Federer stood his ground, holding at love again in the ninth game, but the fact remained that Simon still led 5-4 and was serving for the set in the tenth game.
Simon led 15-0 and was three points away from sealing the opening set, but he erred on a crosscourt backhand wide off an unthreatening inside out forehand from Federer. At 15-15, Simon double faulted and then he missed a routine inside-out forehand to trail 15-40. He saved one break point but proceeded to net another two-hander to lose that critical game. In allowing Federer back to 5-5, Simon had committed three unforced errors off the ground along with a double fault. Federer promptly held at love and surged to 15-40, double set point in the twelfth game.
Simon made three unforced errors to put himself squarely in that bind, but he forced Federer into a forehand error and threw in a surprise serve-volley combination at 30-40, moving forward to put away a forehand first volley. Simon held for 6-6. On they went to a tie-break. Simon sent ahead by a mini-break at 3-2, lost the next three points, then struck back to take the next three. The Frenchman was up set point with Federer serving at 5-6, but the Swiss sent an excellent first serve down the T in the ad court that was unanswerable. Another service winner gave Federer set point, and he took the tie-break 8-6 with a scintillating backhand down the line passing shot winner.
The set had gone to a resolute Federer. Simon left the court for treatment on his ailing groin, yet his movement remained impressive. At 1-1 in the second set, however, Simon twice was down break point before holding on gamely. Federer was pursuing his 2014 policy of going frequently on the attack and serving-and-volleying as often as possible against a formidable returner. Succeeding handsomely on a pair of serve-volley combinations, he held at 15 for 2-2. At 3-3, Simon was down break point again, but he erased it with a flat forehand down the line that he hit deliberately short, causing Federer to send a backhand into the net.
Simon held for 4-3, but Federer stayed aggressive, serve-volleying his way to 4-4, putting away a high backhand first volley with elegant ease at 40-15. After Simon held at 15 for 5-4, Federer held at love in the tenth game with an ace out wide in the ad court. Simon trailed 0-30 in the eleventh game, but Federer pressed a bit at this stage, missing a backhand down the line wide, then netting a forehand volley that seemed well within his range. At 30-30, Federer netted a backhand drop shot as Simon lost his footing and fell down on the court. Simon held at 30 for 6-5 and another tie-break seemed inevitable.
And yet, Simon raised his game significantly and nearly broke Federer in the twelfth game. Federer served-and-volleyed on the first point, but Simon caught him completely off guard with a topspin lob winner off the backhand and then he drove a forehand down the line with enough depth to draw a netted backhand from Federer. Federer got back to 15-30 but Simon surged to 15-40 with a stinging return of serve resulting in a backhand crosscourt long from Federer.
It was 15-40, double set point for Simon. Federer went with his primary percentage tactic with a wide serve to the forehand in the deuce court. Simon attempted a chipped return that landed wide. At 30-40, Federers inside-in forehand put Simon on the run, but the Frenchman should have been able to remain in that rally. Instead, he drove a crosscourt forehand well long. That was an uncharacteristic mistake from Simon, who was very tight. Federer had saved two set points, playing wisely to the score, refusing to take any unnecessary risks. He held on for 6-6. In the ensuing tie-break, Federer led 2-0 before Simon collected the next two points.
Thereafter, Federers well designed attacking game took over. A deep forehand down the line approach provoked an errant backhand passing shot from Simon. Federer serve-volleyed at 3-2 and Simon could not make the backhand return. It was 5-2 for Federer, and he knew he was bound to win. On a second serve return, he ran around his backhand and smacked a superb forehand return winner. Simon was spent. He netted a forehand under little or no pressure. Federer took the tie-break, 7-2, and captured the match 7-6 (6), 7-6 (2). He had saved one set point in the first set and two more in the second with his customary poise under pressure.
Federer finished by putting 70% of his first serves in, winning 78% of those points and 71% on his second serve. Moreover, he won 31 of 44 net approaches for a 70% success rate. There were 161 points played in the Federer-Simon match, and so Federer approached the net just under 30% of the time. He serve-volleyed on 15 points, winning 13 (87%). Those numbers demonstrate that Federer was very selective about coming in behind his serve. Keep in mind that the total number of points on his serve was 71, so he followed his serve into the net only 21% of the time. It seemed as if he had gone forward more frequently on his delivery but that was because he was so persuasive in his ability to do so with conviction.
Meanwhile, Federers 6-4, 6-4 triumph over the top seeded Djokovic was undoubtedly his highlight of the week, and in many ways the finest performance he has produced all year long. He never lost his serve, faced only one break point, and overwhelmed the Serbian across the board. In that inspirational display, he serve-volleyed 17 times, winning 12 of those points (70%). Once again, he went in behind his serve judiciously. He had a total of 72 points on his delivery, so he used the serve-volley tactic only 24% of the time. But the constant threat of Federer coming forward on serve ultimately unnerved Djokovic and kept him thoroughly off balance. Moreover, he felt unusually uptight on his own serve. Djokovic was uncomfortable throughout the contest because he could find no opening to exploit in Federer.
Federer came to the net 48 times over the two sets, winning 28 points (58%). But the accumulated pressure was what got to Djokovic. Early on, Federer paid a penalty for some chip-charges that lacked severity, making it easy for Djokovic to rifle passing shots into the clear. But with increasing success, Federer came in magnificently, blanketing the net and anticipating the regularity of Djokovics crosscourt backhand passing shots. Federer largely set the tactical agenda in this duel. What made the Serbian even more agitated was his inability to beat Federer in the backcourt exchanges. That was inexplicable from his standpoint.
Federer was particularly sharp from both sides off the ground, and he was stepping up the pace with his crosscourt forehand, drawing errors from an out of sorts Djokovic. Federer got the initial service break of the match to move ahead 3-2 in the opening set. That was the first unmistakable sign that Djokovic was not happy with the state of his game. He was misfiring off the forehand alarmingly at times. He missed a sitter off that side to fall behind 15-40 in that fifth game, and Federer broke at 30 with a deep backhand slice approach drawing a netted backhand pass.
Djokovic had a chance to get that break right back in the following game. But caution cost him that opportunity. On his lone break point of the day, he guided a second serve return relatively short down the middle of the court, enabling Federer to step in and rip an inside out forehand into the clear. The Swiss held on for 4-2. After Djokovic held on from deuce for 3-4, Federer delivered an ace down the T, a service winner that was barely touched by his opponent, another ace down the T and an ace out wide. That love hold took Federer commandingly to 5-3. Two games later, the score was locked at 30-30 but Federer was utterly calm. He approached behind a crosscourt forehand to put away a forehand volley down the line. At 40-30, Federer aced Djokovic to wrap up the set in style.
Djokovic was befuddled. His groundstrokes were letting him down flagrantly. He missed a down the line backhand approach badly, then made a glaring unforced error backhand crosscourt error to fall behind 15-30. Federer accelerated the pace on a crosscourt forehand and Djokovic made another surprising mistake. He saved one break point but Federer broke at 30 with a terrific forehand volley winner down the line. Federer held comfortably for 2-0, and Djokovic could sense it was all spinning away from him swiftly. At 0-2, 30-30, he aced Federer and then took the next point for the hold but Federer was four for five on first serves in an easy hold that gave him a 3-1 lead.
Djokovic was down 15-40 in the fifth game after an abysmal forehand unforced error, but Djokovics passing shot was too good on the next point. He then got to deuce after a spectacular 19 shot rally, angling a backhand pass acutely crosscourt for a startling winner off an excellent Federer approach. Federer created a third break point opportunity for himself, but Djokovic took it away with a service winner to the backhand. After three deuces, a desperate Djokovic held on for 2-3. When Federer double faulted into a 0-30 deficit in the following game, Djokovic looked to assert himself.
That did not happen. Djokovic pulled a forehand crosscourt wide from near the middle of the court; that is a shot he seldom misses. Federer was back to 15-30 and he held at 30 with another unstoppable first serve. Federer had advanced to 4-2. After two deuces, Djokovic held for 3-4, and then he went all out to fight his way back into the match. After Federer raced to 40-0 in the eighth game, there were five deuces. The Swiss needed eight game points. But Djokovic never could make it to break point. Federer put 13 of 16 first serves in and held on tenaciously for 5-3. That was a bold and even a brave stand, and it took a lot of emotional air out of Djokovic. Federer was immovable.
Nevertheless, the Serbian saved two match points in the ninth game. He wiped away the first with a surprise serve-and-volley combination, kicking the serve to the backhand, moving forward to put away a backhand first volley down the line. He cancelled the second with an ace down the T, and held after three deuces. Federer was unperturbed by Djokovics audacity. Down 15-30 when he served for the match at 5-4, Federer stepped into the court and sent a forehand inside-in for an outright winner from an unlikely position. An ace down the T took him to match point at 40-30, and a deep crosscourt volley set up a backhand volley winner. Federer thus raised his record to 19-17 in his compelling career series with Djokovic.
Remarkably, this was the third time in 2014 that Djokovic had a chance to tie his head to head record against Federer. He could have drawn even in Dubai, but Federer won that semifinal battle in three sets. He had the same opportunity for equality in Monte Carlo when they met in the penultimate round, but lost again. And now this.
Federer has won three of his five 2014 meetings with Djokovic. The Serbian injured his wrist in the Monte Carlo loss and probably should have retired in that contest. For that defeat he deserves to be cut some slack. But clearly Djokovic is considerably worried about how to handle Federer this year. Even the two wins he recorded went down to the wire. He did not serve out the match at 5-4 in the final set of the Indian Wells final, and narrowly got out of that one in a final set tie-break. At Wimbledon, Djokovic had a 5-2 fourth set lead and was seemingly poised to close out Federer, but he became apprehensive and lost five games in a row before recouping to win in five sets.
There was a stretch not long ago when the psychology was very different between the two champions. It was Djokovic then who seemed to invade Federers psyche. In the semifinals of the 2010 and 2011 U.S. Opens, Djokovic saved two match points on each occasion to cut down Federer. In the former of those appointments, Djokovic saved the two match points with dazzling winners on his own serve at 4-5 in the fifth set, and then marched to victory. The next year, Federer served for the match at 5-3 in the fifth set and moved to 40-15. Djokovic rattled his psyche then with a blockbuster forehand crosscourt return winner from the deuce court, then fended off a body serve to coax a forehand error to save the second match point. He won 17 of the last 21 points to prevail on that occasion.
In the final of the 2012 Barclays ATP World Tour Finals, Djokovic stymied Federer again at a juncture when the Swiss seemed to be rolling in the right direction. Djokovic had won the first set of that entertaining final 7-6 (6), but Federer had the momentum in the second set in his favorite indoor setting. He was serving with a 5-4, 40-15, double set point lead. He was on the verge of a third and final set. But Djokovic made two remarkable returns off first serves, broke back, and travelled to a 7-6 (6), 7-5 victory. In that period, Federer seemed frequently to doubt himself when it counted in many big matches against Djokovic, but these days there appears to be something of a role reversal.
Djokovic brought in Boris Becker as his head coach this year primarily because he wanted help and inspiration for dealing with the biggest matches on the best occasions. He did manage to overcome Federer in that riveting Wimbledon final, but only after nearly letting it get away. I never really understood the appointment of Becker, who was a great player to be sure but not an unassailable big match player. On his cherished turf at Wimbledon, Becker won only three of seven Wimbledon finals. Djokovic wanted to believe that Becker could make him a better big match player by virtue of his stature. Djokovic had, after all, lost four of his last five Grand Slam tournament finals heading into 2014.
With Becker in his corner, Djokovic lost another major final to Rafael Nadal in the Roland Garros final this year before reviving at Wimbledon. But the view here is that Becker has done nothing to make Djokovic a more substantial figure on big occasions. To be sure, Djokovic has larger issues on his mind these days, most importantly the birth of his first child, presumably at some point next month. The new life he is contemplating as a husband and father is surely weighing heavily on Djokovics mind. But my guess is that some of his tennis problems are not related to that.
Federer may well have been unbeatable the other day in Shanghai against Djokovic. He was masterful in every way, and his mindset and virtuosity were absolutely admirable. He could have played no better. It was astounding stuff from the Swiss. And yet, conversely, Djokovic was found wanting. His forehand let him down in both sets, and Federer was much better off that side. Djokovic did not defend well off the forehand and he lost his range. That was not the case at Wimbledon. Djokovic also served with no real purpose or conviction, and did not win the free points at the rate he should have done. As superbly as Federer served, Djokovic returned poorly by his standards.
He rightfully praised Federers gameplan and execution, but seemed to lack a vision of how he wanted to proceed tactically and what it would take to win. In my view, Djokovic would be wise to find someone to replace Becker, or simply let Marian Vajda do the coaching on his own again. Djokovic had played some of his best tennis of the year the previous week in winning Beijing, but his swagger was gone against a mightily confident Federer in Shanghai. Their match was a significant one because Djokovic could have significantly widened his lead over Federer in the Race for London. If he had won that clash and gone on to take the Shanghai tournament title, Djokovic would have 9,650 points and Federer would have 7380. It would have been virtually impossible for Federer to supplant Djokovic as the No. 1 player in the game at the end of this year. But the gap between them now is much less substantial. Djokovic has 9010 points while Federer has 8020.
In any case, Federer is riding high. He had no business beating Mayer in his opening match, and yet he refused to surrender even when his prospects were ever so bleak. Mayer had both the consistency and firepower from the baseline to keep Federer ill at ease. Mayer served for the first set and had two set points at 5-4, but Federer provoked a forehand error on the first set point and Mayer bungled an inside out forehand on the second. Federer stole that set but Mayer took the second 6-3. In the final set, Federer served at 4-5, 15-40, double match point down. He missed his first serve but came in off Mayers shallow return of the second serve. Federer punched a backhand volley crosscourt, but Mayer dealt with that well, driving a backhand passing shot down the line. Federer had to dig out a low forehand volley. He could only scrape it back down the line, but kept it short and low. Mayer scampered forward rapidly, and tried another down the line passing shot off his backhand. The shot had Federer beat, but Mayer caught the top of the net cord, and the ball rolled back on his side of the net.
They call that fate. Federer saved the next match point with an aggressive forehand that Mayer could not get back in play. Federer held on for 5-5. Both men held for 6-6. A final set tie-break settled it all. Mayer led 5-2 and was serving. Federers return was solid but short, and Mayer could have gone either way with his forehand approach. He went unwisely to the forehand, and Federer somehow flicked his passing shot crosscourt for a winner. At 5-3, Mayer missed another inside-out forehand wide. Federer served at 4-5 but he overcooked a forehand approach long and that gave Mayer two more match point opportunities. Federer saved the first with an overhead winner, but now Mayer was serving on his fourth match point.
He overplayed his hand, serving-and-volleying. Federer kept his backhand return reasonably low, but Mayer should have punched a volley deep to the backhand to set up another volley. Instead, he tried a drop volley crosscourt and his shot sat up. Federer passed him easily with a down the line backhand for 6-6. Mayer served his way to a fifth match point, but Federer was now serving again. He came in behind a wide serve to the backhand, and Mayer found the net tape with an unlucky return. It was 7-7. Federer quickly collected the last two points to emerge with a 7-5, 3-6, 7-6 (7) victory.
That totally improbable triumph set the stage for everything that Federer would have wanted out of that exhilarating week. He thus captured his fourth title in the nine finals he has played in 2014, and his second Masters 1000 championship in a row. Not only was he awfully lucky to get by Mayer, but Federer also needed the winds of good fortune at his back in his final round win over an unwavering Simon. Perhaps their appointment will be a preview of the Davis Cup Final in France next month. Before that intriguing collision between Switzerland and France takes place, though, Roger Federer has a lot of unfinished business left on his tournament calendar, beginning with an appearance at Basel next week, followed by a Masters 1000 event indoors in Paris, and culminating with a quest for a seventh title at the season ending Barclays ATP World Tour Finals. There is much work left to do, but he must be looking forward to every bit of it. After garnering his 81st career singles title the way he did, Federer surely feels as if it is his destiny to win big prizes as he heads into a very important stretch in his career.
<Steve Flink has been reporting on tennis since 1974. He has been a columnist for tennischannel.com since 2007. You can purchase Steve’s latest book “The Greatest Tennis Matches of All Time” here.
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