As the ATP “Big Three” becomes the “Big Four” following Andy Murray’s heroic US Open triumph, the possibilities for fierce, compelling rivalries at the top of the men’s game have increased even further. What began in the mid-2000s as a two-way battle for supremacy between Roger Federer and Rafael Nadal, before evolving into a titanic triad tussle when Novak Djokovic came along, now includes the strong-willed Scot in the mix for Grand Slam glory. Match-ups between these four players, in whichever combination, are among the most competitive in the history of tennis, exquisite examples of athleticism, courage and determination. Here, we take a closer look at the history, and speculate on the future, of just one of these golden-era rivalries: that of Federer and Djokovic.
First: the numbers. Federer and Djokovic have played each other a total of 28 times to date, with Federer currently leading 16-12. They have faced off a record 11 times in Grand Slams. Curiously, the only Grand Slam final the two have contested was at the US Open 2007, well before Djokovic reached his peak. Time and time again, against the law of averages, Federer and Djokovic have been drawn in the same half of the draw at the major tournaments, with the result that their high-profiles clashes have almost always been at the semi-final stage. This is perhaps why Nadal, not Djokovic, is seen by casual fans as Federer’s arch rival – the Swiss legend has played the Spaniard in a record 8 Grand Slam title matches.
An obvious, but important, point to note in the Federer-Djokovic rivalry is the age difference. Six years older, Federer had the upper hand in the pair’s first few meetings, taking advantage of Djokovic’s inexperience and youthful tendency to become frustrated during high-pressure matches. Their first four clashes are – to date – the only contests to take place before a semi-final, an indication of how firmly the two have planted themselves at the top of the rankings. At the end of 2008, Federer lead the head-to-head 7-2, with the most significant win for Djokovic during that time a semi-final Australian Open victory on the way to his first Grand Slam title. The consensus at this stage was that Djokovic had incredible potential, but still lacked the discipline to consistently challenge Federer, whose preternatural calm and focus reigned supreme.
In 2009, Djokovic began to close the gap. He scored consecutive victories over Federer for the first time, and capped the year by beating the Swiss in the final of his home tournament in Basel.
2010 saw the Serb make crucial improvements to his game. Most significantly, he worked hard on his fitness. Whereas he previously had a tendency to struggle with his breathing in long matches, calling for the trainer or even, when the going got very tough, retiring, Djokovic’s stamina was now unimpeachable. He modified his diet, cutting out gluten, and developed his once-suspect attitude to become a tower of mental strength. The fruits of these labours were seen for the first time in the epic 2010 US Open semi-final, Djokovic’s first ever five-set victory over Federer. The Swiss exacted revenge by beating Djokovic in their next three meetings, but the Serb, although still with only one Grand Slam title to his name, had announced his intention to join Federer and Nadal at the pinnacle of the game. The next season is, of course, the stuff of legend.
2011 saw Djokovic elevate his game to new heights. His serve improved dramatically. He no longer wasted energy on negative body language. His footwork, defence and anticipation improved so much that he was now more difficult to put away than the Matador himself, Nadal. During his 43-match winning streak, he beat Federer three times, including a straight sets shutdown in the Australian Open semi-final. The Serb was playing at an unprecedented level, and it seemed as though no one could beat him. By the time of the French Open 2011, Federer was ravenously seeking revenge. Playing one of his career-best matches on clay, the Swiss sneaked past Djokovic in a four set semi-final, wagging his finger after victory as if to say that he was still the true world number one. The rivalry, already intense, now had a new psychological element. Earlier in their careers, Federer had stated his disapproval of Djokovic’s frequent calls for the trainer during demanding matches, accusing him of making too much of minor ailments. Now that the Serb had eliminated defeatist, fractious behaviour from his on-court performances and improved his fitness levels dramatically, Federer’s attitude towards his younger opponent had evolved into a grudging respect. Nevertheless, the Swiss legend did not enjoy losing, and the French Open victory was highly significant, a warning sign to players and pundits that, although he was advancing in age, he was still a formidable force in the game. Against this backdrop, the two played arguably their best match to date in the US Open semi-final 2011. A bruising, pulsating encounter in which Federer took a two sets to love lead, Djokovic roared back to take the final set 7-5. Federer held two match points in the decider, and after serving out wide, witnessed a colossal Djokovic forehand return fly past him. It was a stunning point, and one that particularly rankled Federer after the match. Rather than seeing Djokovic’s shot as a sign courage and mental fortitude, Federer deemed it reckless, and was dismissive of the Serb’s choice to go for broke on such a big point. “Confidence, are you kidding me?” was his retort after it was suggested that Djokovic’s monster return was a function of self-belief.
The pair did not face each other again until the clay court season of 2012, when Djokovic sealed two victories in Rome and at Roland Garros in – of course – the semi-finals. The Serb had now won six of their last seven encounters, and many observers were speculating that Djokovic had gained the upper hand in the rivalry. Federer’s powers may not be in sharp decline, but at 30 years old he was seen as more vulnerable in five-set matches, more likely to lose consistency, especially on his forehand. Against Djokovic, a defensive wall, Federer would struggle to assert himself in long rallies and be forced to hit winners that may not come off. However, no sooner had the narrative been rewritten to accommodate Federer’s role as elder statesman and Djokovic’s as the iron-willed warrior, than the storied rivalry offered a fresh twist. The Wimbledon semi-final was yet another last-four match between the two, but it was their first ever meeting on grass. Many favoured the Serb to prevail over the 16-time Grand Slam champion, surmising that his athleticism and aggression would be too much for Federer. Yet it was the Swiss who proved steadier on the occasion, working points magnificently and producing some of his best ever tennis, a marriage of grace, technique and ingenuity that Djokovic, for all his resilience and determination, could not combat. Federer followed up that win with a stunning performance in the final of the Cincinnati Masters event, a straight sets victory that featured the first ever 6-0 set in the history of the rivalry.
As the 2012 season enters its final phase, the Federer-Djokovic rivalry is an intense as ever. Now ranked 1 and 2 respectively, they can only meet in tournament finals, which should address the improbability of their recurring semi-final clashes. It is now a cliché to state that Federer has broken every record in the book, but he remains hungry for more success, and would dearly love to end the year as world number one. Djokovic has had a remarkably successful and consistent year, but he hasn’t dictated the tour as he did in 2011, and will also be eager to snatch the top ranking before the end of the season. Much has been written about how much longer Federer will play, and how much longer he can compete at such an exalted level. He admitted after his US Open quarter-final defeat to Tomas Berdych that he is in need of a temporary break from the game. Some have speculated that this could herald the beginning of the end for the Swiss, as he has never before admitted to feeling “wounded”. But it could just as easily be a frank admission that, after a long and gruelling season, he wants to be fresh for the final events of the year. Federer has surprised us so many times before, just when we were beginning to write him off, that we would be foolish to do so again. As for Djokovic, for whom retirement is not on the horizon, the future is dazzlingly bright. He has the game, and the desire, to win many more Grand Slams, and possibly even return to dominance. As Federer enters the twilight of his career, a new subtext enters the rivalry. Will the knowledge that time is passing encourage him to play with greater urgency? Will he attempt to play more aggressively in order to penetrate Djokovic’s phenomenal defence, at the risk of making more errors? And how will Djokovic respond, losing to Federer twice this summer after apparently solving the riddle of the mighty Swiss? Watching the two answer these questions on the tennis court will be enthralling for fans; this captivating rivalry is far from finished.