Novak Djokovic goes into his sixth Australian Open final as mercurial as he is potent. He will surely start as favourite because he always does, yet he carries with him a hint of vulnerability to give his opponent a scintilla of hope.
As difficult as it is to compute how Djokovic could struggle against Gilles Simonover five sets for four-and-a-half hours four days earlier then get halfway towards what looked to be developing into a public execution of Roger Federer before mysteriously losing his way, the Serb has been defying logic for years.
He is like a diamond: almost impossible to cut but prone to shattering when the right incision is made, with the right tools. Federer had the tools. He knew what to do – but he could not keep it up. Djokovic won 6-1, 6-2, 3-6, 6-3 in two hours and 19 minutes, numbers that hardly tell the story.
“These have been probably the best two sets I’ve played against him, I think, throughout my career,” Djokovic said. “This was a different level.”
As for the disparity between this performance and that against Simon, he said: “Your best changes day to day. It’s not always possible to play this way. You strive to be the best you can be. When you’re playing one of your top rivals, somebody of Roger’s résumé, of course it requires a lot of focus, determination and a different preparation than most of the other matches.
“That’s why I came out with a great deal of self-belief and confidence and intensity, concentration. I played flawless tennis the first two sets, no doubt about it.”
Djokovic does things on a tennis court that sometimes make little sense: such as surviving a semi-final of four hours and 50 minutes against Andy Murray here in 2012, then beating Rafael Nadal in the final 36 hours later in a match that went on for five hours and 53 minutes, the longest final in grand slam history. As Murray has remarked since, he remains in awe of that performance, as his own efforts had left him barely able to get out of bed the next day.
Djokovic is special in many ways, however. His off days are rare. His best days are awe-inspiring. For an hour-and-a-quarter in the first semi-final, Federer was on the plane home.
Against Simon, Djokovic was at his most perplexing. He was disorientated and dispirited before tapping into the beast within him in the final set.
Against Federer, he roared from the start. This was the real Djokovic, the champion roused to near the peak of his powers by a challenger with way more pedigree than the Frenchman but whose gifts were neutered in a whirlwind start.
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Roger Federer and Novak Djokovic at the net after their Australian Open semi-final. Photograph: Michael Dodge/Getty Images
If Djokovic is to lose his title here on Sunday, he will have to revert to the shadow of himself that nearly lost to Simon. That will not happen. He can be tested early in a slam but it takes someone special to do it at the end.
Federer failed two years in a row at Wimbledon; Stan Wawrinka pulled it off spectacularly last year at Roland Garros, to deny Djokovic a run at a calendar slam.
“I’ve seen Novak play this well before,” Federer said after their latest match. “It’s tough when it’s from the start because you’ve got to try to stop the bleeding at some point.”
Asked to rate his stunning backhand winner towards the end after hunting down a lob and saving a smash – the last point he won in the match, as it turned out – he smiled and said: “Top hundred.” And he meant it. His career has sparked with such gems, just not so many against Djokovic lately.
Did he think he could ever beat him in a slam again? Silly question. “I have self-confidence as well, you know,” he said. “That doesn’t fade away very quickly. I know it’s not easy but best-of-three, best-of-five, I can run for four or five hours. It’s not a problem. It doesn’t scare me when I go into a big match against any player who’s in his prime right now. But of course you need to prove yourself.
“Novak right now is a reference for everybody. He’s the only guy that has been able to stop me as of late, and Stan [Wawrinka] when he was on fire in Paris [at the French Open last year]. It’s OK. I wish I could have played a bit better and who knows what would have happened. Today Novak was very, very good. There’s no doubt about it.”
Which is pretty much what the man himself said. This year, he will start favourite in every match and, barring illness or injury, is better placed than at any time in his career to win all four majors before the end of 2016.
You can tell when Djokovic is at his most dangerous. His stare would drill a hole through a brick wall – and Federer proved to be a rather crumbling wall in Melbourne.
The ATP statistics analyst, Craig O’Shannessy, noted that when Djokovic beat Federer 6-3, 6-4 in the ATP World Tour Finals in London last November, he lost only three points on his second serve. “Mind-blowing”, was the Australian’s description of that 84% return.
On Rod Laver Arena against Federer, the world No1 was similarly lethal if his first serve did not do the damage, winning 21 of 32 points, at 66%. He went eight for eight in the concluding set. Federer – or nearly anyone else, for that matter – could not possibly handle such sustained pressure and he cracked. His own winning rate on second serve was a respectable 49%, 21 from 43.
How he tried, though. He served and volleyed 17 times, winning the point 11 times – Djokovic did not follow his serve in once – and he won 22 of 34 visits to the net. Too often, however, he was punished for his daring – or was it desperation?
Djokovic does that to players, even great ones, and who could deny Federer’s greatness?
There was a look of resignation on his face from midway through the first half, as Djokovic hit a level as far removed from his struggle against Simon as Mars is from Earth. Indeed, he played tennis from another planet.
It took Federer an hour and 12 minutes to fashion his first break point but he could not convert it. Within a minute, Djokovic gave him two more opportunities. Ditto. He then pulled off an astonishing serve and chipped a cross-court winner for a fourth break opportunity – not dissimilar to a shot Djokovic had played maybe 20 minutes earlier. This time he completed the execution, forcing his opponent to hit long and he led 4-2.
Winners he missed in the first sets were now landing. He held for 5-2. He served for the set at 5-3. He had set point. Twice. And finally he got on the board.
They closed the roof. Battle resumed. Then numbers went into the crunchers.
ESPN asked viewers if Federer could come back from two sets down to win and 39% said he could. He has done it nine times in his career, after all.
This is Djokovic’s time, though. He only loses when he dips, as Murray observed before the tournament. Federer was reluctant to agree and said that, unlike Murray, he had done nothing special in his preparation for a match against him.
More numbers: only one player of the 154 who have tried – the Austrian Jürgen Melzer in the 2010 French Open – has beaten Djokovic from two sets down in a slam. That is a staggering statistic.
Since the start of the US Open, he is 36-1 win-loss and 16-1 against top-10 players. That, too, is hugely impressive. This is a man at the very peak of his powers, yet with faultlines – and for an hour or so, either side of the roof closure, Federer knew where to probe. Then the beast came back.
There was a tussle in the fourth – and another highlights-reel winner in the penultimate game – but there was also a growing sense of the inevitable. There always is. Even when his level does not stay red-lining at the maximum, Djokovic is still too good for everybody else – including Federer.
Another stat: Djokovic has never lost a final here. Maybe he never will.