At a time when so many younger players are breaking through, Novak Djokovic and Rafael Nadal are battling for the year-end No 1 ranking and the O2 Arena’s 10-year lease of the ATP Finals is coming to an end, so much of the build-up has been about the role their Wimbledon final will play when Djokovic and Roger Federer take to court in their group on Thursday.
It reflects the depth of feeling, satisfaction and hurt that their last classic battle delivered, when Djokovic recovered from 8-7, 40-15 down in the fifth set to defeat Federer. The dominant question is how on earth a player will not be scarred by such a loss when they finally meet again.
“I will not expect it, to be honest, because Roger’s experience and mental strength has been almost unprecedented, you know. He’s one of the greatest players ever to hold the racquet,” said Djokovic when asked such a question this week. “Maybe, maybe not. I don’t know. But I don’t want to think about that or expect that, because I want to rely on really what I do well and try to execute that.”
In truth, the discussion is moot. For all their career successes, Federer and Djokovic have bitterly endured defeat 269 and 186 times in their careers. They have cried on the court and they have sobbed in the locker room afterwards. The reason they have won so much is because of their ability to bounce back and carry on after such shattering losses. Across the net Djokovic would never dare to underestimate Federer because he knows full well that the second he relaxes he is vulnerable.
Few people expected there to be quite as much riding on their upcoming match. When Djokovic and Federer are in the same group at the ATP Finals it usually means that they will both qualify and their group match will simply decide the final position in the group. Instead, both men were ambushed by an inspired Dominic Thiem this week as he became the first player in history to defeat both Djokovic and Federer in the same round-robin group at the ATP Finals. Thiem has automatically qualified for the semi-finals after his heroics and the second qualifier will be decided on Thursday. Djokovic and Federer will fight for Thiem’s scraps.
Despite the defeat, Djokovic should take plenty of positives from his loss to Thiem. The Austrian played at a stratospheric level precisely because Djokovic defended spectacularly and played extremely well himself. Of Djokovic’s 890 career ATP wins, it is hard to imagine that he has played at a higher level in more than a third of them. Beyond the famous battles with his legendary rivals, he has rarely faced an opponent competing at that sustained level throughout.
Federer’s defeat against Thiem left many more concerns. The Austrian played well, but he was by no means unplayable and Federer’s game was brittle in most of the tight moments. The 38 year-old responded well with a straightforward victory against Matteo Berrettini to secure his first win and immediately move on. The Swiss seems to prefer the feeling of a straight knockout tournament where you win or you fall, and this is how both players will approach their 49th battle.
“We’ll find out, but I think it’s all flushed away from my side,” Federer said. “A lot of water has gone under the bridge since [Wimbledon] now. I wasn’t hoping him not to be in my section or in my draw. I didn’t hope I was never going to play him again.”