At the end of the first season in nearly a decade that no man truly dominated, the year-end championships reach a fitting conclusion with a match between the two champions who compiled the most impressive credentials of anyone in 2012.
Curiously, the top two men in the world have met only four times this year and only once on a hard court, splitting the results between slow courts (Djokovic) and fast courts (Federer). Logical considering the relative strengths of each, that division would bode well for the latter’s hope of capturing a staggering seventh title at the year-end championships on the fast court in London. Under the eerie blue lights of the O2 Arena, Federer has inflicted nightmares on all three of his leading rivals, including a convincing victory over Djokovic in a 2010 semifinal. Whereas indoor hard courts have proved the least productive surface for the Serb so far, the Swiss has found them especially accommodating late in his career as his consistency wanes. Increasingly reliant on shortening points and thus assuming more risks, the two-time defending champion in London can execute those tactics with the greatest precision under controlled conditions. Not in more than two years has he lost on this surface to anyone other than Del Potro, who has become a particular nemesis of his again, and he has defeated every man currently ranked in the top 10 during that span.
On the other hand, Djokovic has exuded an ominous air of confidence for most of the week as he quietly has compiled an undefeated record en route to just his second final at this tournament. Perhaps in part for superstitious reasons, he arrived at a press conference bearing chocolates for the media that surely tasted less sweet than would a season-culminating title. While he will hold the #1 ranking by a wide margin no matter the outcome of the final, Djokovic would celebrate his reconquest of that pinnacle in an especially satisfying manner by defeating the man whom he deposed (and who had deposed him). Twice losing the first set this week, Djokovic calmly rallied past Murray and then Del Potro as his resilience in adversity led to dominance in the match’s culminating stages. A similar narrative described Federer’s semifinal against the Scot, in which he trailed for most of the first set and also fell behind in the first-set tiebreak. As a rivalry full of final sets would suggest, neither man can expect his rival to concede easily. Even when Federer recorded an opening bagel in Cincinnati this summer, Djokovic surged back within a point of the second set before the Swiss survived.
Just as Nadal famously suffocated Federer by pounding his heavy lefty forehand into his opponent’s backhand, Djokovic will gain a valuable advantage in rallies by using his much more powerful two-hander to chip away at Federer’s one-hander. Armed with uncanny timing and accuracy on his return when at his best, the world #1 can punish the defending champion for a modest first-serve percentage by pouncing on second-serve returns. Although his movement has improved this year from much of 2010-11, Federer cannot recover from a defensive position as easily as Djokovic can, so he must aim to set up points with his first serve and take time away from the Serb by approaching the net. More even-tempered than his rival, the Swiss should stay alert to capitalize on any signals of negativity that drift across the net, which could compensate for his own, more technical lapses in consistency. Especially effective against his younger rivals this year is a tactic unusual for Federer in his prime: the bold second-serve return. Despite his crisp serving this week, during which he has not lost serve more than once in any set, Djokovic remains vulnerable to double faults when an opponent causes him to lose confidence in the shot. Thus, Federer will enhance his chances significantly if he can win this type of mental battle.
Achieving his most notable successes early in the season with titles at the Australian Open and Miami, Djokovic hopes to echo his 2008 campaign by completing the full circle from opening brilliance to mid-season malaise to an emphatic closing statement. On Federer’s side, a more specific parallel to 2010 beckons when one recalls his victory over the then-world #1 Nadal in the London final. Closing the season by turning the tables on the man who had tormented and then displaced him, he credited his affinity for the surface as a key factor in that spirit-raising result. The surface once again will spring to his aid in a match of tight sets and explosive shot-making.
When this week of final statements ends, the defending champion should have the last word. Federer in three