French Open 2011: Novak Djokovic vs. Roger Federer and the Keys to the Match

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French Open 2011: Novak Djokovic vs. Roger Federer and the Keys to the Match
Clive Brunskill/Getty Images

Novak Djokovic versus Roger Federer.

World No. 2 versus World No. 3.

The greatest player of the past six months versus arguably the greatest player of all time.

As the French would say: "C'est magnifique!  Mais, ou est mon croissant?"  (Translation: "How wonderful! But where is my croissant?")

(Sigh).

In the dream semifinal everyone else eagerly anticipated and actually gives a hoot about, Novak Djokovic and Roger Federer will square off for the right to advance to the French Open final against reigning and five-time French Open champion Rafael Nadal.  (My deepest apologies to Andy Murray.  I just don't see him keeping Rafa from his appointed finals date with Novak or Roger.)  

Djokovic versus Federer has all the trappings of a bona-fide classic.  

In Novak, you have the hottest player on the planet, riding a historic winning streak (unbeaten in 41 matches in 2011, 43 straight overall), who has beaten Federer three times already this year and knocked him out of the last two Grand Slams en route to a U.S. Open finals appearance last September (loss to Nadal) and the Australian Open title in January (over Murray).  

With a fourth straight victory over Federer, Djokovic would assume the World No. 1 ranking but, more importantly, be just one victory away from adding a French Open title to his two Australian Open titles.

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In Federer, you have quite possibly the greatest player of all time (i.e. a record 16 Grand Slams and counting), a former French Open champion ('09) and three-time runner-up (to Nadal, '06-'08), who, incidentally, was the last player to beat Djokovic on any surface (i.e. the ATP World Tour Finals last November).  

Despite his run of three straight losses to Djokovic since, Federer still owns a 13-9 career advantage over the Serb, including a 2-1 mark on clay, and would like nothing more than to deny the Djokester his place in the history books for now and remind folks why he is the best clay-court player of this generation not named Nadal.

So how is this match likely to play out?  Who will win?  And why?  Here's the comparative breakdown.

Service Game:  A year ago, Djokovic's serve was a mess and a big reason why he had yet to make a serious dent in the Federer-Nadal stranglehold on the men's game.  

Today, Novak's serve has to be considered among the best in the game.  While his is not the most overpowering serve by any means, Novak has learned to locate it with pinpoint precision, and he now has the confidence to know he can count on it to help get him out of trouble when threatened on his own serve.

Federer, of course, still has one of the best, most clutch serves in the game.  He has always relied on serve variation and location more than raw speed, though he certainly has more than enough of the latter to call upon when he needs it.  When his serve is on, Federer rarely faces a serious challenge holding serve and often closes out games at love in just over a minute flat.

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Assuming wind is not a factor, Federer enjoys a slight service advantage over Djokovic, which Roger's going to need if he plans to keep Novak, who in 2011 has been breaking his opponent's serve over 40 percent of the time, at bay.

Return Game:  Hmm, well, how to put this?  How about this: Advangage, Novak.  

Although Roger is almost certainly top 10, maybe even top five on tour when it comes to the return game, Novak is unquestionably the games best returner, and it isn't even close.  

It's common knowledge that if you serve to Roger's backhand, even on a second serve, nine times out of ten you get a chip or slice return that merely continues the point.  Not so with Novak.

Forehand side, backhand side, deuce court, ad court, slice out wide, or 130 up the T..., it doesn't matter.  Odds are, the return's coming back deep, with pace, and will give Novak control of the point if play should continue.  In fact, Djokovic's advantage in the return game is significant enough to more than neutralize any advantage Federer may enjoy in the service game.  

With breaks of serve likely to be at a premium, just how well these two serve and return will go a long way towards determining who wins the match.

Groundstrokes:  Prior to 2011, Federer enjoyed a distinct advantage on the forehand side, Djokovic an advantage on the backhand side.  But Novak has rewritten the script, and the biggest technical difference between Novak 2010 and Novak 2011, other than the improved serve, is his improved accuracy and consistency off the forehand wing.  Nobody, Federer included, is hitting more punishing, penetrating, and consistently offensive groundstrokes, off both wings, than Novak, which gives him a decided advantage in any baseline rallies.  

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Hence, it's advantage, Djokovic...with one caveat.

If Federer is hitting his backhand well enough to sustain rallies and can really groove his forehand early and aggressively enough to put Djokovic on the run and earn his way to net, where he excels, he can finish points early and avoid the long rallies that favor Djokovic.  If Roger elects to stay back and trade groundstrokes with Novak, he is in for a long, er, make that a short match, followed by a just as short plane ride back to Switzerland in time for a Saturday stroll through the Alps.

Defense:  Because matches at this elite level are usually won by whoever can execute his offensive game-plan, the defensive abilities of both players figure to be sorely tested.

Here again, Roger is probably top five in overall defensive skills, even though he much prefers to play his trademark offensive brand of tennis.  Novak, on the other hand, is the quickest, most complete defender on tour, having surpassed Nadal and Murray in that regard.  He is also a much more willing defender than Federer, and he is now the best at turning defense into offense, which only the elite players (e.g. Nadal, Federer, Murray) can do with any consistency.  

Because of his newfound confidence on the attack, Djokovic doesn't spend nearly as much time or expend nearly as much energy on defense as he used to.  The trick, then, for Federer will be to put Djokovic on his heels early in the rally, keep him there, and finish points off before Djokovic can counter.  That's a tall order, the way Djokovic is playing.  

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Djokovic, meanwhile, will try to do the same to Federer, which means that whoever can muster enough defense to fluster and frustrate the offense of the other will likely emerge the victor.

Because he's the superior, more willing defender, it's advantage, Djokovic, on the defensive side of the ball.

Intangibles:  Given Novak's overall domination of the tour in 2011, not to mention his three-match winning streak and success against Roger in the last two Grand Slams, it would be easy to dismiss Federer's chances altogether, since all signs point to a Novak victory and place in Sunday's final.  

But just how do you dismiss Roger Federer, winner of 16 Grand Slam titles, three-time runner-up and one-time champion of this tournament, only 6 months removed from beating Djokovic and Nadal in the year-end Tour finals?!  

The short answer is, you don't.

Djokovic is, without question, the favorite to advance, and deservedly so, a fact even Federer would acknowledge.  He has proven his ability to handle the big stage and raise his game above the level of his competition.  The only question is how well he can adjust and settle in to the role of favorite.  As most great champions eventually find out, getting to the top of the heap is only half as hard as staying there.

Nobody knows this better than Federer, whose days as the odds-on favorite to win any tournament he enters are probably behind him.  And although it remains to be seen how well Federer will respond to the new role of underdog in a Grand Slam semifinal, he has, at 29 years of age, a wealth of experience and still more than enough ability to give Djokovic all he can handle and more if the Swiss brings his A-game and the Serb doesn't bring his.  

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With all that said, I give Djokovic a slight advantage in intangibles on the basis of his success against Roger in the last two slams.

Prediction:  This semifinal match between Djokovic and Federer figures to be a tight, thoroughly entertaining affair, with both players rested and playing well coming in.  

It's a virtual certainty that, despite his recent struggles against Novak, Roger still believes he can beat him, even as well as Novak is playing.  When you've had the kind of success Roger's had and have a winning record against a particular opponent, that self-belief that says you can win lingers long after the point that reality should have set in.  Having beaten Novak more often than not over the course of his career, Roger still fancies his chances, and rightfully so.  

BUT, the converse of that mentality is also true: If you've suffered the kind of devastating defeats that Roger has against a particular opponent, that self-doubt that says you can't win lingers long after it should have faded.

Which brings me to the biggest obstacle facing Roger in his semifinal showdown against Djokovic: the specter of Rafael Nadal.  

If Federer were to prevail against Djokovic, he will almost certainly face his arch-rival Nadal in the final, the same man who has beaten Roger three times in French Open finals, the last time in spectacular fashion; who has beaten Roger in five of seven Grand Slam finals they have contested; and who owns a fairly convincing career head-to-head advantage of 16-8 against Federer.  

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Whether Roger would admit it or not, the prospect of facing and losing to Nadal in still another French Open final has to weigh on his mind.  And, to be perfectly honest, I can't say as I blame him.  

Thanks to Robin Soderling, Roger got his French Open title and career grand slam, and so beating—or, more likely, getting beaten by—Rafa on Rafa's favorite surface in the finals of Rafa's favorite slam, yet again, is probably not very high on Roger's to-do list.  Been there, done that, thank you very much.  When does Wimbledon start, again?

And so, with Nadal looming in the final, I question how much Federer really wants the spoils of beating Djokovic, no matter how much he wants to take down Djokovic.  And THAT, I believe, more than anything else, will make all the difference when Federer and Djokovic face off.  Djokovic, who with good reason doesn't fear Nadal the way Federer does, will simply want it more.  

And THAT, if nothing else, should prove enough to propel Novak to victory. 

Advantage: Djokovic.  In four hard-fought sets.

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