For the second time in three weeks, Novak Djokovic and Roger Federer meet in the closing stages of a major tournament. Federer pulled off an impressive comeback win in their last encounter and looks in immeasurably stronger form so far at Indian Wells. Can Djokovic find some of the confidence and killer instinct that’s been lacking from his matches so far in 2014?
How quickly things change in tennis. When Roger Federer and Novak Djokovic last met a little over two weeks ago in the semifinals of the Dubai Duty Free Tennis Championship, Federer looked in marginally stronger form but Djokovic had dominated their three encounters over the past 18 months and looked ready to get his season going in the desert where he had captured the title four times.
Instead, Federer recovered from the loss of the first set and displayed greater competitive intensity as well as astute and audacious tactics in his emphasis upon attacking the net, recording a 3-6, 6-3, 6-2 victory (and going on to lift the trophy). Now, on the eve of their 33rd meeting which will take place in the final of the BNP Paribas Open at Indian Wells, recent history and above all current form would seem to make Federer a strong favourite to defeat Djokovic and capture his fifth Indian Wells title.
Djokovic and Federer after their match in Dubai (MARWAN NAAMANI/AFP/Getty Images)
Federer is yet to drop a set at this tournament, has won three tiebreaks in the early stages and looked both supremely fit and unnervingly confident in a 6-3, 6-1 victory over an overwhelmed and flustered Alexandr Dolgopolov in the semifinals. Djokovic, on the other hand, has frequently appeared disproportionately frustrated by his own tennis in the course of three matches that went the distance and, while he faced one of the tougher prospects in the draw in the shape of an in-form Marin Cilic, two of those were due to lapses of concentration on the world no. 2’s part: He was cruising against world no. 91 Alejandro Gonzalez before he unexpectedly and somewhat unforgivably dropped the second, and he served for the match not once but twice against John Isner in the semifinals, failing to reach a match point and dropping the second set in a tiebreak. Most worrying of all, it was Djokovic’s backhand – usually the reliable anchor of his all-round game – which deserted him in those closing stages of the second set and while he recovered somewhat in the third, Isner also struggled with his movement due to an injury.
Novak Djokovic (Photo by Matthew Stockman/Getty Images)
If tennis is 90% mental, as is so often said, that means there’s a big question mark hanging over 90% of Djokovic’s game heading into the final. Federer, meanwhile, appears more confident than he has done in a long time, referring to his mental state on court as ‘Zen’ earlier in the week and adding, after his defeat of Kevin Anderson in the quarterfinals:
‘There is a sense of calmness and confidence to my game … Also that grit and that feeling of wanting to win badly, which was hard to find at times last year.
‘It's nice proving it to myself, the team and my fans that they can still count on me. It's nice giving yourself opportunities to win a tournament, no doubt about that.’
As always at Indian Wells, the gusting wind in the Californian desert could be a factor and while both players have proved that they can handle it in the past – winning two and four Indian Wells titles respectively – it could play into Federer’s hands if he sticks to the tactics of attacking the net at every opportunity that proved so effective in Dubai.
Certainly, one has the sense that, despite his higher ranking, Djokovic enters this match as the underdog. How quickly things change in tennis.
Federer and Djokovic are scheduled on Stadium 1 at 2pm (9pm GMT)