Roger Federer will be the first to admit that beating Novak Djokovic at the ATP Finals on Thursday night doesn’t make up for his gut-wrenching defeat in the Wimbledon final but he avoided a double blow in London and inflicted some woe on the Serb himself.
Federer’s convincing 6-4, 6-3 win in front of a roughly 18,000-strong crowd that backed him as vociferously as in July’s Wimbledon final — when he held a pair of match points on his own serve — sent him to the semifinals at the year-end championships at Djokovic’s expense.
“I’m just happy at the level I could play today and obviously it’s always special beating Novak, even more so (after) what happened but I didn’t feel like I had to get rid of the ghosts or anything like that,” Federer told reporters. “I feel like I moved on pretty quickly after that.”
The result also ended Djokovic’s chances of finishing the year as No. 1 ahead of Rafael Nadal and collecting a sixth year-end title to match Federer.
“It was not much that I did right this match,” Djokovic, who still owns a winning 26-23 record against Federer, told reporters. “Realistically he was the better player in all aspects and absolutely deserved to win.
“He served great, moved well, returned my serve very well. From his end, I think he did everything right. From my end, I was just playing too neutral.
“I couldn’t read his serve well. Just a pretty bad match from my side.”
No one holds more year-end trophies than Federer in the men’s game, so it’s little surprise this event is also where the 38-year-old snapped a five-match losing streak against Djokovic.
His previous win? In the group stage at the ATP Finals in 2015.
He indeed served flawlessly, getting 73% of his first serves in play and winning 81% of those points. There were a dozen aces and he faced only one break point against the game’s top returner.
“I have had a good serving year,” said Federer. “I’m sure at some point this year I felt great. Maybe even Basel because I ran through the tournament there,” he added, referring to the title in his hometown last month. “So I know I can do it. But obviously that was not Novak Djokovic opposite to me.
“So to hit the spots the way I did today is definitely special.”
Djokovic, meanwhile, said he felt a sharp pain in his serving elbow in the second set, but “it was probably just an awkward, quick movement that I did. It did not pose any form of issues later on.”
Federer finished second in Group Bjorn Borg behind Dominic Thiem, who already topped the group after beating Federer and Djokovic.
The huge-hitting Austrian lost his perfect record, however, falling to Matteo Berrettini in Thursday’s day session at the O2 Arena, 7-6 (7-3) 6-3.
Federer vs. Nadal?
Tennis fans have been spoiled with a pair of Federer-Nadal clashes at grand slams this season and the two titans, who own a combined 39 majors, will collide in the semifinals if the Spaniard advances from Group Andre Agassi.
For that to happen, though, Nadal needs to beat the already-through Stefanos Tsitsipas on Friday and hope that defending champion Alexander Zverev then loses to US Open finalist Daniil Medvedev.
Nadal pulled off a miraculous comeback against Medvedev on Wednesday to stay in contention, fending off a match point and rallying from 5-1 down in the third set.
Remarkably, Federer has failed to make the semifinals at the ATP Finals only once, in 2008 in Shanghai when he was knocked out by Andy Murray in a fiercely contested three-hour battle.
Thursday wasn’t nearly as dramatic.
In a sign of the struggle that was to come for Djokovic, he faced a break point in the first game after holding a 40-15 advantage.
He saved it with some bullying baseline tennis but back-to-back double faults in the third game helped Federer to get the first break.
From then on in the opener, Djokovic was always hanging on and didn’t have a chance on the Federer serve.
In the first set, Federer served at a stunning 83% and won 84% of those points.
Turning points in second set
Djokovic managed to escape from 15-40 to start the second — saving one of the break points with a sizzling backhand pass — and it felt as if a momentum change was coming as he earned his first break point at 2-1.
But Federer, to most of the crowd’s relief, brushed it aside by moving the 16-time grand slam winner all around the court, then finishing at the net.
What happened next? Djokovic was broken to trail 3-2, and that was that.
There was no comeback for Djokovic, and Federer finds himself in familiar territory, in the latter stages at the ATP Finals.