Roger Federer is the hard court king of tennis, and certainly sent this emphatic message to Novak Djokovic in a convincing Masters 1000 title win at Cincinnati. He will be seeded No. 1 for the 2012 U.S. Open in his bid to win this title for the first time since 2008.
Federer has nine Grand Slam titles on hard courts, outdistancing some impressive legends.
He is tied with Pete Sampras for five U.S. Open titles, but has doubled Sampras’ two Australian Open titles. The only other Open era champions to have more than two U.S. Open titles are John McEnroe (four), Jimmy Connors (three) and Ivan Lendl (three).
Federer's four Australian Open titles are tied with Andre Agassi, but he is three ahead of Agassi’s two U.S. Open titles. Djokovic is the only other player to win as many as three Australian Open titles.
The shorthand synopsis shows Federer with nine hard court Slams, and Djokovic with four.
So why is there a growing minority of fans and tennis observers who insist that Djokovic is in line to be the hard courts' king? Is this just another hyper-reactive 21st century projection, or is there a strong possibility Djokovic will one day claim this throne for himself?
The Once and Future King
It’s not Djokovic’s fault that many are eager to form processions for his coronation. His dominant 2011 season enshrined his hall-of-fame career and racked up all three hard court Slams by February 2012.
Perhaps this was all set in motion with his maiden Slam win in 2008, the first year of Melbourne’s Plexicushion surface. His extraordinary ground strokes and defensive abilities have long been an impressive display of power and precision.
So it’s conceivable that Djokovic could tie Federer and Agassi with a fourth Australian Open title in 2013.
But he has a long ways to go at Flushing Meadows, New York, where it’s faster, louder and more intense. And he will have to deal with a hot Federer who has flexed his power and might with a resurgence of Retro-Fed tennis.
The 6-0, 7-6 Cincinnati loss to Federer also raised concerns about Djokovic’s chances to defend his U.S. Open title and beat back his older rival. There was a surprising concession from Djokovic through the Associated Press via ESPN.
"The conditions here are quite different from the U.S. Open. It's a bit slower there, which I think goes in my favor a little bit more. More suitable to my style of the game.”
Translation: Djokovic believes he is more of a slow hard court player than a fast hard court player. More importantly, his confidence or belief will need more work on faster hard courts. Is this also a subtle error in waving the white flag for indoor hard courts and carpet?
King of the Mountain
Apparently Federer didn’t get the memo that Djokovic is the new hard court king. Don’t expect him to willingly abdicate his No. 1 ranking and opportunity to win his 18th Grand Slam title.
Federer’s success on fast hard courts was built long ago in his juniors days. He learned to hit smooth flat strokes that hardly cleared the top of the net. Though he went on to add more topspin, he has always had a very efficient style with smooth, compact strokes.
He does not need to wind up and loop shots, so he appears to have extra time in his preparation. His cat-like footwork helps him step into a forehand to control or overpower his opponent from any spot on the court.
In the Cincinnati semifinal against Stanislas Wawrinka, Federer hit some mighty forehands that derived from the way he disguised his finishing angle. There are other players who hit harder forehands than Federer, but the difference is Federer appears to hit just as hard because his opponents are more often off balance or late to react to his directed shots.
The faster the surface, the more lethal the Swiss becomes, and it’s a tribute to his technical reflexes and superiority mastered for over a decade.
Federer is nearly as great on slower hard courts, like the Aussie Plexicushion, but the difference is his opponents can recover and stay in a point easier.
Federer’s backhand is a little more susceptible to the high bounce, especially if Djokovic or Rafael Nadal can attack it with more offensive opportunities.
But Federer continues to add his strategic and creative flair with slice and change-of-pace shots. Against Wawrinka, Federer hit 55% topspin and 45% slice with his backhand. He also patiently laced his backhand cross-court to work the point and setup his great forehand.
Federer has learned to break opponents’ momentum, and this is most crucial of all in defeating the rhythmic Djokovic. Couple this with his excellent serving and big-point ability, Federer is not just setting the standard for hard courts play, but is perfecting an even greater mold.
The Battle for the Future is Won Now
How important is the U.S. Open title to their hard courts legacy? Should Djokovic win the title, he would face only a 5-2 deficit to Federer in his career count at Flushing Meadows. It could spur him on to add more with prime years still ahead. But this is a tall order in an ATP that is currently experiencing rapid shifts and changes.
If Federer wins, he would hold an insurmountable 6-1 U.S. Open advantage over Djokovic, and perhaps seal his status as the all-time hard courts king. Case closed, next topic please.
In many ways, this is a crucial Slam for Djokovic’s career. He has admitted that he has faced a mental toll this summer, saying through the Associated Press: “There is no question about it. Maybe playing couple weeks in a row, four weeks in a row, got to me maybe mentally. Physically it didn't. I felt OK on the court.”
Djokovic’s return to dominance will require him to manage both physical and mental grinds on the ATP tour. He has shown great heart and championship mettle, but long-term consistency and greatness will only be proven over time.
Like Nadal, Djokovic invests a lot of his physical defensive efforts to be successful. His ankles often stop and start with tremendous force and quickness, and he will need to be healthy.
He relies a lot on his physical athleticism but must continue to improve his ways to attack inside the court and from less predictable positions. Great players keep evolving their games, and Djokovic will need to find other angles to attack and win against Federer and the surging Andy Murray.
But really, the comparisons to Federer are unfair. Let’s see how both players do at the U.S. Open and give it a few more years before we suggest anointing Djokovic the hard court king.