Novak Djokovic's straight sets victory last Saturday over Roger Federer, 6-3 6-3, was remarkable for one thing, if not for many others—that it was the second consecutive time Federer had lost in straights to the Serb.
Indeed, Federer losing consecutive matches against the same player in straight sets hasn't happened all that often at all. Yet, there was a sense of destiny and deja vu about the whole affair.
Maybe it was the fashion choice that night—Federer looked positively clownish in yellow, in the face of a determined Djokovic in black. Of course, one would be wondering how serious an impact this would have on Federer, and his 2011 season.
Naturally, he posed a nonchalant indifference to the matter when questioned in the press conference, and he did well to do so.
For Federer, little can truly startle him nowadays—save those elusive grand slam (and lately, ATP World Tour Finals) wins.
He's been through too much dirt and suffering, too much psychological and media hullabaloo to have this defeat hurt him. While he would acknowledge that Djokovic is "dominating" right now, one knows well: no one knows quite as well about dominating as Federer.
This match was reminiscent in some ways of Federer's first match with Nadal, which, barring the identity of the scoreline, saw a fit, top-form Federer face off one of his soon to be arch-rivals.
On Saturday, Djokovic entered his arch-rival's books, playing with the verve, and singleness of purpose which Federer had so long been famous for.
In many ways it was a contrast not just in styles—the aggressor against the defender. It was also a contrast in attitude and posture—Djokovic exuding focus and intensity, and Federer, a worrying laxity.
It was as if the Swiss was resigned to his fate from the start—a backhand shank at break point in the third game setting the tone for what would prove an error-strewn, and uncertain, match.
It was as if a shift in power had occurred—Federer holding little of the belief that he once abounded in, that he would beat Djokovic. Djokovic toyed with Federer's movement to his right, and peppered relentlessly his backhand, ultimately confirming his dominance on the baseline.
Federer, on the other hand, who used to grace tennis courts with that regal elegance and silken liquidity of movement, was made to look confused ans rushed, perplexed at the irrepressible defense of Djokovic.
Here was the Hewitt that Hewitt had always sought to be, or the Nalbandian that should have been—the adept baseliner that would mar Federer's fortunes.
Federer's fortunes were marred on Saturday, but, it may be said, no less so than Murray had done in Shanghai last year, when a similarly consistent and solid baseline defense held off Federer 6-3 6-2.
While Djokovic made Federer look almost clumsy and ungainly at times, so precisely applied was his pressure, Federer, contrariwise, failed to execute the tactics he should have—going too much to Djokovic's forehand side, and missing too many first serves.
Too many errors, too many flaws, were revealed by prolonged rallies.
It is fair to say that Federer, ever the most sublime aggressor, sowed the seeds for the monsters we now know—Nadal, Djokovic, and Murray. His wondrous arsenal of serve and forehand have only bred the finest returners and ground hitters the games has ever seen.
What's, more, of course, is that they are over three years younger than him—a generation in tennis terms. In Djokovic, one finds the most recent and significant exemplar of recent months.
The counterpuncher has duped the aggressor, persistance has outdone brilliance. Yet Federer, at the end, for all his mortality, as we have come to know, stands there at the end, lone, and at the same time revered—an exhausted genius.
Federer may be described as that: a weary prodigy.
Somehow, even on a losing swing he make his victors feel cheated—Djokovic this time by his inconsistency of purpose and error-strewn evening.
Djokovic hadn't devastated Federer—he had just played at a level high enough to outwit, for a night, the Swiss master. What's more, the real signal of a change of guard hasn't occurred yet, and for quite a few months more—a victory over Federer at Wimbledon.
Only there, with Federer at top form, and on his favourite turf, would matters really be more firmly decided—and not for a hundred ATP 500 finals.