No one saw this one coming.
On Friday morning at Wimbledon, it seemed more like 2007 than 2012 as Roger Federer decisively defeated Novak Djokovic, the top-ranked, best tennis player in the world for the last year and a half. Federer played fantastically, elevating his game beyond the level he's been stuck at the past couple of years.
Federer's serve was the key to the match, and it wasn't just his first serve, but his second serve that kept Djokovic off balance for most of the match. Federer and his camp clearly made a strategic decision to go for more on his second serve and it paid off in major dividends, preventing Djokovic from pouncing on a softer second serve. Djokovic, after all, returns serve better than anyone and has belted some of Fed's second serves in other matches between them.
Federer also seemed to play with more hunger and focus for the entire match—something he has not been able to do in a number of big matches over the past two and a half years since he won his last major at the Australian Open in 2010. Federer appeared dead serious, with the intense concentration required to gain tiny edges vs. Djokovic. It seemed that, for Roger, being on Centre Court at Wimbledon in a big match again somehow enabled him to find that old confidence.
Federer's ground strokes were as solid and consistent as I can recall in other top matches. He was not hitting as many unforced errors as he often has in the past two years.
So, how did this happen? It's hard to say, but let's start with Djokovic, who clearly was a bit "off" for most of the match. The television commentators said they'd heard mention he might have a cold. Perhaps we'll hear more about that later. Yet, he played well in the second set, and I have trouble believing it was all the physical distractions of an illness. Who knows? Djokovic did have trouble with his footing on the Wimbledon grass a number of times and he did not run after many shots that it seems he usually goes for.
My guess is that Djokovic was a bit off physically, but that the other half of the equation was that he realized, as he looked over at Federer on the Wilmbledon grass, (where he's never played Roger) and said to himself: "God this guy (Roger) is playing great today. Maybe I'll lose...." Djokovic, for whatever reason, seemed to lack his normal "belief," as the commentators call it. He was less aggressive than usual—in fact, the older Federer seemed to win as many of the long rallies as Djoker did. Djokovic wasn't taking as many chances, seeming to doubt his chances or preferring to be cautious. Djokovic, in the past year and a half, has been anything but cautious most of the time.
As a fan of Federer's, I hope tennis fans and observers will give Federer full credit for this victory rather than attributing it to Djokovic having a bad day or feeling subpar. To me, Federer has worked very hard to get to this point. He's changed his approach, becoming more aggressive, trying to shorten rallies. He's been finding a new comfort zone and success, winning a number of tournaments in 2012 that will give him the #1 ranking— if he can win the Wimledon Finals of course.
More importantly, Federer has defied all the odds and naysayers who have speculated that he's on the decline and will never win a Grand Slam tournament again. I include myself as doubting whether Fed could win a Slam again. Then, when I saw how well he was playing in recent months, I felt he needed a break—like he's gotten at Wimbledon—by having Rafael Nadal lose in the early rounds of an event.
Now, Federer has his big chance to win his 17th Slam. I believe he will do it. I also believe he already pulled off a tremendous feat by channelling his old self and defeating Djokovic in his prime in such a big, high-pressured match like Friday's. Federer seemed to turn back time for a day at Wilmbledon. How much longer can this incredible tennis player keep playing like he's younger than he is? Let's hope it's a while longer.