Who Was More Dominant at Their Peak, Roger Federer or Novak Djokovic?

Jeremy Eckstein@https://twitter.com/#!/JeremyEckstein1Featured ColumnistJuly 17, 2015

Roger Federer of Switzerland reacts after winning the mens final against Andre Agassi of the United States, at the US Open tennis tournament in New York, Sunday, Sept. 11, 2005. Federer won 6-3, 2-6, 7-6 (1), 6-1. (AP Photo/Richard Drew)
RICHARD DREW/Associated Press

The leftovers to Wimbledon 2015 have mostly served to remind the tennis world that Novak Djokovic is the most dominant force in tennis. In particular, his victory over the great Roger Federer is a clear symbol of how time changes players, but there will always be the legends of yesteryear clamoring to play against the best of the moment.

Federer was the most dominant player on the planet from 2004-07, winning major titles at a rate that might not be seen again. He is the standard for measuring all-time champions, and so we are going to match up a sample of his dominance against what we are seeing from Djokovic in 2015.

Let’s set a few ground rules, because this is not intended to be the kind of article counting major titles, discussing allegedly weak eras or making incendiary comments about either player. I’m also leaving Rafael Nadal out of this discussion. That’s for another time, but for now the Djokovic-Federer comparison is appropriate with a few things they have had in common, even if their legacies and times at the top have vast differences.

So, let’s examine a few things about their peak years outside the numbers. It really begins with how they used their skills and talents to overwhelm their competition. Which player had a greater aura in doing so? What can we learn or remember about them from past to present to future?

 

Federer 2005

TONY FEDER/Associated Press

After Federer fell to Djokovic in the 2015 Wimbledon final, I was struck by the parallels between this match and one that he played 10 years ago when the shoe was on the other foot. (Yes, I’m a tennis junkie, so I got out my homemade DVD copy and rewatched it.)

There was Federer, only 24 years old and at the peak of his powers, wiry, athletic and with dashing confidence that could swing from the heels or paint in masterful brush strokes. Young Federer still leaps out at you in photos and on videos, like a pop-up hero in a child's book.

In 2005, he roared into the U.S. Open final against 35-year-old Andre Agassi.

The match was monumental for several reasons, not least of which American Agassi was playing behind a raucous New York crowd that urged him to victory, much as the 2015 Wimbledon crowd pulled for Federer. Aging legends earn this support, and 2005 was a reminder that even young Federer had to pay his dues against past legends.

The next point is how much Federer has changed his game by 2015. He has refined his net attack to put more pressure on opponents in a tour that is more muscular and able to grind down tennis athletes. So this is not remotely the same Federer that crushed the tour 10 years ago. It’s a tribute to his versatility and talented skills that he is currently the No. 2 player in the world, but watch the following highlights and note the difference in young Federer’s offense.

In 2005, Federer was primarily a baseline player because he won there with perhaps the most lethal offensive package the sport has ever seen. He was the superstar who showed the rest of the tour how to create winners from anywhere on the court. If you only watch the first minute of these 2005 U.S. Open highlights against Agassi, observe how he can turn defense into offense, find one opening and crack a breathtaking winner to either of Agassi’s corners.

It would take volumes to break down Federer's superlatives, and we have the world wide web, but even that does not feel enough to chronicle just how dominant he was:

  1. Federer’s serve was not at the level of Pete Sampras, but his service game was just as great. He was the best at dishing out the third ball, and he was most often poised to pull the string on anything short, long or in between. He could chip the ball short to draw his opponent in, get him off balance, and break up his patterns.
  2. He often sprinted out of the gate like War Admiral, all but burying the best of his competition. Sometime in the middle of the second set, it was usually long over, and if one of the other stars could somehow stay with him, you could see the strain they were under to remain nearly perfect, knowing that Federer could turn the match on a dime and reach another level. It was like trying to hold the barn door shut against a cyclone.
  3. His footwork was exceptionally graceful and lively. It was the key to turning defense into offense with one stroke, a huge contrast to other stars like Andy Roddick who were often helpless to create offense when retrieving.
  4. It was a marvel to watch his backhand snap onto Flushing Meadows' hard courts and drive opponents back. A lot of this is lost when tennis observers scrutinize the more radical occasions against Nadal on clay, but his backhand everywhere else and against anyone else was a real weapon when he was the undisputed king of tennis.
  5. The Federer aura provoked a sense of awe over the rest of the field. When he suddenly put it all together in 2004 and through 2007, he was at a level that intimidated opponents. His dominance was beautiful, and it was sudden death.

Like the 2015 Wimbledon final, the 2005 U.S. Open final saw the aging champion Agassi pull out the second set and then run out of gas in the third and fourth sets. Agassi was gallant, but 2005 Federer was dominant.

 

Djokovic 2015

Pavel Golovkin/Associated Press

If Federer’s creativity was sudden death, Djokovic’s dominance is more slow torture. I mean that as a compliment. He bleeds his opponents like a Bram Stoker villain, but how he does so is often unappreciated or unnoticed.

Unlike 2005 Federer, Djokovic likes to start off more conservatively, feeling his way into the match as if he wants to have a practice session, grooving groundies in the corners and hitting safely inside the sidelines. He tests out his return game, locks in his dark eyes and probes for weaknesses. Maybe he gets the early break, but he calculates the paces and tendencies his opponent is bringing, and he recalibrates his own computerized return game to break the opponent's will as much as his serve.

When the match heats up in the second or third set, it all seems to slow down for him. If necessary his strokes will have more amperage, paint the lines and create an atmosphere where tightness and tension will cause his opponent to choke or to misfire.

The damage is just as often done with his searing returns as his airtight groundstrokes. He’s part greyhound and cheetah, racing on defense and then honing in for the kill.

With 2015 Djokovic, it’s like taking Jimmy Connors’ return game, Agassi’s groundstrokes and Nadal’s defensive footwork and tenacity. His backhand is a turbo-version of something between Andy Murray and David Nalbandian, but more versatile and, well, more lethal. Years from now it will be one of the backhand standards used to measure future players.

Even Djokovic’s service game and efficient net play has grown into an unsung supporting cast to the rest of his all-star game. He’s certainly bolstered this part of his game. For contrast, go watch some of the 2007 U.S. Open final, when it looked like he was serving with a piece of plywood pasted onto his back.

Then, he was all groundstrokes and desire. Now, he’s had it all merge into a nearly unbeatable combination of offense and defense with few weaknesses.

There are occasional Djokovic lapses, but he’s persistent and able to recover quickly. If you beat him, it will be a small window of near-perfect tennis, the prime example is his loss to Stan Wawrinka in last month’s French Open final. But mostly it’s like the other players are playing in the dark streets where busted street lamps make it difficult to find light. Djokovic is seeing how to dominate where it’s not really a thought with anyone else right now.

 

The Verdict

Elise Amendola/Associated Press

So, how much more dominant was Federer in 2004-07 compared to the 2015 version of Djokovic (Djokovic 3.0)?

It’s acknowledged that Federer’s four-year dominant spell was the greatest period of winning in tennis history, but maybe Djokovic wins the 2015 U.S. Open and then strings together another couple multi-major years. In other words, he has more to accomplish, and he will need to do so if he is to extend a very special year into a dynasty of dominant years.

This is no given. John McEnroe in 1984, and at age 25, had one of the most dominant years in tennis history, but he never won another major.

On the other hand, Sampras is ranked alongside players like Bjorn Borg, Federer and Nadal because he strung together six straight years at the top, four times posting multi-major years.

In his time, Federer nearly lapped the field with the kind of energy and explosiveness that might be forgotten with the way today’s muscular tennis is played. Federer was in part a throwback to players from Rod Laver to Sampras, but he was an original innovator who helped create the monster ATP World Tour we see now. There’s no doubt that Djokovic and others have looked at the Federer standard time and again to make themselves into greater players.

In a way, the Djokovic era is a culmination of the Federer era, albeit with its alternative glories and successes. In the Open era, only Borg, Sampras, Federer and Nadal can claim greater periods of total dominance.

Federer was the more dominant player in his prime the way things stand right now. He crushed the tour at three different major venues, while Djokovic has shown similar, even greater dominance at the Australian Open and is making a special mark at Wimbledon. Both players were gridlocked by Nadal at the French Open, but Federer did get his 2009 title.

Djokovic would also need to grab a couple U.S. Open titles to increase his legacy, and if so his impending greatest streak might just be taking off after the shadow of the Swiss Maestro. 

Give it a few more years until we know for sure.

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