The atmosphere was electric.
The packed center court within the exclusive environs of the Aviation Club Tennis Center buzzed in anticipation like volts down a power cable ahead of the 21st showdown between two of the finest that tennis has to offer.
On one side stood Novak Djokovic, dressed like bruise-dark thunder-cloud in purple-black. On the other side was Roger Federer, a yellow burst of sunshine breaking through the gathering cumulonimbus.
With the temperature under the indigo sky at 27 degrees, this had the feel of a gathering storm over the desert oasis, of a serene blue rectangular pool about to be battered by a battle of the elements.
The nature of the two protagonists’ contest was there for all to see in their history.
Federer and Djokovic had met 20 times before; 16 times in a final or a semi-final; six times in the last six months.
They had exchanged the No. 2 and 3 rankings four times in just seven months and were currently separated by just 85 points.
Since Wimbledon, Federer had won 48 out of 53 matches—but two of the losses were to Djokovic at the intervening Majors in New York and Melbourne.
They were both on a streak of form, with a title each in 2011 and a big win from each of their last two matches: in the WTFs for Federer and in the Australian Open for Djokovic. Each was the last man to beat the other.
Little wonder theirs has become the rivalry of the moment. Little wonder the atmosphere was electric.
Federer opened serve cleanly to take the first game with his signature off forehand drive. Djokovic, in return, proved that his serve is a different animal from last year. On that occasion, he had made 12 double faults on his way to the title against Mikhail Youzhny: today, he made none.
Djokovic then proved why his two-handed backhand is one of the most devastating shots in tennis. First a down-the-line bullet and then a cross-court missile pressured the Federer serve to 30-30 and drew two straight errors from the Swiss: an over-hit drive and a shanked backhand gave Djokovic the break.
Already, Federer’s serve struggled to hit the mark. Two more break points and five deuces came and went before Federer held, but Djokovic reeled off another love service game to lead 4-2, and the Serbian storm clouds started to smother Federer’s occasional bursts of sunshine.
By the eighth game, Djokovic had missed only two first serves—a 91 percent average compared with 56 percent from Federer—and quickly led 5-3, 30 points to just 22.
Federer, unable to counter the pace and depth of Djokovic’s firepower, again came under pressure on his serve. Djokovic found two successive angled forehand winners of such width and speed that even the lithe sprinting of Federer could barely reach them and certainly could not control them.
Djokovic then picked off a net-bound Federer with a piercing backhand cross-court pass and broke to take the set, 6-3.
Federer tried to maintain his composure in the face of an aggressive and accurate opponent: Djokovic had dropped just four points on his serve in the set.
Federer should also, perhaps, have considered a change the tactics, brought his wide, swinging serve into play, sliced some backhands short and broken up the baseline pattern. But the subtle Federer variety that so often undermines his opponents' power rarely had a chance to break through. Instead, the match continued to feature big rallies full of big drives driven deep to the baseline.
One glimmer of hope burst through the deepening Djokovic storm of winners.
On the Serb’s second service game of the set, he missed three first serves and Federer punished him with a couple of backhand winners mixed up with some high forehands to his opponent’s double-handed wing. His reward was two break points—his first, and what turned out to be his only, break points of the match. He took the second one for a 2-1 lead.
The advantage, though, was short-lived. Djokovic—a more mature, more confident, more complete player than the one who ground out his title win on this court last year—refocused at 1-3 down and fired off a service game to love.
With that impetus, Djokovic attacked the Federer serve and, helped by a double fault and two rash errors into the net from the Swiss racket, took a 40-15 advantage.
It proved to be the decisive point of the match: the moment when the thunder cracked and the sun was blanketed, when the tide did not just turn but hit like a tsunami.
An intense rally, with both men pushing and probing each other to the extremes of the court, ended with Federer smashing an overhead into the net. Djokovic had drawn level, 3-3.
With the advantage lost, Federer started to go for something extra on his serve but his percentage gradually subsided to 57, and a shanked backhand brought up three break points for Djokovic. The set was quickly 5-3.
With the clock not yet at one-and-a-quarter hours, the Serb served out easily for his third consecutive Dubai title.
This was not just a straightforward, straight sets win. It was a 63 points to 44 tide-changing win. And Djokovic converted only four break points from his 10 chances, so the win might have been even quicker than its eventual 6-3, 6-3 score-line.
This 20th title—on the back of a 14-match-winning streak—takes Djokovic level with Nikolay Davydenko in the ranking of active players. However, Djokovic already has two Majors in that tally and is, at just 23, the youngest man in the top 20.
He is a man who has clearly moved on from the doubts that beset his physical endurance and mental waywardness a year ago, and will be the man to beat in the closing Masters events of the spring in Indian Wells and Miami.
Who will win in Indian Wells?
As for Federer, he will want to make points at those two big tournaments after a relatively poor performance at both last year. But before then, he will surely go back to the drawing board with Paul Annacone.
Admittedly Federer was not pushed beyond an hour and a quarter in any of his matches in Dubai but, even so, he did not lack speed, fitness or endurance. What he did seem to lack against Djokovic was the attacking tactics of his WTF victory in London.
Federer played not a single drop shot, rarely played his wide, sliced serve, rarely chipped and charged, rarely sliced his backhand short.
He played Djokovic’s game, and that is—and will continue to be—a lost cause.