How Federer might have hope against Djokovic

  • Alex Sharp

It’s pretty astonishing that a player with 20 Grand Slam titles is written off before stepping onto court.
 
Why? Well, Roger Federer has to contend with a fresh and in fearsome form Novak Djokovic.
 
The Swiss, the people’s champion, has been through a gruelling Australian Open thus far and on the brink of elimination twice. A fifth-set tiebreak epic with John Millman in the third round was overshadowed in the quarterfinals.
 
Federer, 38, hampered by a groin complaint, managed to fend off seven match points in a titanic tussle with world No.100 Tennys Sandgren.

But now the ultimate test awaits and all the factors on paper point to the Serbian soaring into another Melbourne finale.
 
Seven-time champion Djokovic has steam rolled into the final four, getting better and better with each majestic display.
 
The world No.2 edges a 26-23 head-to-head record over Federer and has significantly not lost to the Swiss in a major since Wimbledon 2012.
 
Federer is putting on a brave face.
 
“I believe in miracles,” he said with a smirk after escaping against Sandgren. 

“I mean, if I can get through a match like this, through a match like Millman, yeah, you do believe. I only believe it once it's over, I shake the hand of the opponent, that it's over, that it's fine, never before.”

Let’s not forget Federer has accumulated 103 titles over the past 20 years, but even for such a pantheon of modern sport, this is a daunting task.
 
So how can Roger reach the final?
 
Djokovic is only four behind his Grand Slam haul and will be desperate to block his progress, however he needs to embrace the ride he’s had, that he’s on borrowed time in Melbourne.
 
“It’s a state of mind, he has to feel he’s already lost. He has to let go of all the things that he expects of his game. It’s survival mode and he will have to play differently,” Classic Sport Agency journalist Helen Scott-Smith, who has covered her countryman’s entire career, told ausopen.com.
 
“Plus at his age and experience it’s more obvious in his head that really it’s an unbelievable chance. He should go out there and just enjoy it.”

The pressure is all on Djokovic to sweep a hampered Federer.
 
“It’s the right mindset not to force it, he loves perfection in his matches, but if he can enjoy the moment something unbelievable can come out of it again,” she said.
 
If anyone can bring something new to the court it is Federer and the closing stages against Sandgren could have illustrated a game-plan for the six-time champion on Thursday night too.

'I mean, if I can get through a match like this, through a match like Millman, yeah, you do believe'
Roger Federer

“OK, we know he can play every shot in the book. What he went through with Sandgren is something new … he took the pace off of everything, even walking, he had to,” explained Scott-Smith.
 
“Federer is very famous for going fast, but maybe that unlocked something, he thinks maybe I can take a little bit more time.
 
“The danger facing Djokovic in a semifinal is to overplay, to go faster, to try and be faster and better than he is. That’s where Novak is so effective. Maybe that was a lesson, maybe he can make Novak feel uncomfortable.
 
“Against Sandgren you could see he was feeding off Federer trying to match him, but when he wanted to get into these big rallies he lost them. Then his leg started hurting and he had to adapt.
 
“At the top, they play with such pace and power. Taking away that pace goes against everything in the modern game, every instinct.
 
“If he can mix it all up, it could stun Djokovic. He never has anyone who plays half-weight against him. It’s a risk, I don’t know what else he could come up with.”

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Roger Federer in action at AO2020

Back in November Federer prevailed in straight sets indoors at the ATP Finals in London. If the roof on Rod Laver Arena comes over, the conditions could alter in the No.3 seed’s favour. That’s really pushing it though.
 
One factor that is definitely in Federer’s favour is the crowd.
 
He is simply adored worldwide and still enjoys a rapturous reception even facing an Australian in Melbourne. The cauldron of facing Federer with the whole stands backing him must be intimidating.
 
“When the crowd is chanting ‘Roger,’ I hear ‘Novak,’” said Djokovic after their sensational Wimbledon final in July, when the Serbian saved two match points in a complete classic.

“It sounds silly, but it is like that. I try to convince myself that it’s like that.”

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Roger Federer and Novak Djokovic after their epic Wimbledon 2019 final

It’s not a secret the overwhelming wave of support Federer receives in the stands frustrates Djokovic, gets under his skin, it’s etched across his face.
 
“The public will be his greatest asset,” stated Scott-Smith.
 
Another crucial factor will be the efficiency and the damage Federer can inflict on serve against arguably the best returner of the modern era.
 
“Djokovic can strike the ball wherever he wants on return, he’s unbelievable,” added Scott-Smith, going back to catching the reigning champion off guard. 

“If you face a strong serve, you can lean into it, deflect it, use the power. Taking the pace off, finding the corners, Djokovic won’t be overly prepared for that. It would change how he technically follows through the return.
 
“I’m not sure Federer will have his usual serve, the speed, it depends how he has recovered in his legs.”
 
Without his usual weapons and athletic grace, due to his hours on court and problematic groin, Federer will have to spring a few surprises.
 
The crowd will look to play their part and if Federer can embrace the underdog tag, we could be treated to a captivating, competitive contest, otherwise the defending champion will most likely take the honours in part 50 of their fascinating rivalry.