Novak Djokovic came into Sunday’s final against Roger Federer hoping to make ATP history as the first man to win all nine Masters tournaments. He and his team came up with an unusual game plan – serve and volley on every point, chip and charge every return.
Just kidding. Novak came to the net once in the match (he won the point). His opponent served and volleyed several times in the match, and came to the net 24 times, winning 14 of the points, or a 58-percent conversion rate. But that wasn’t the key to this match.
Sunday was a tale of two returns, and if you see that you ought to be able to guess the outcome. Djokovic put 79 percent of Federer’s serves back into play; Federer managed to get his returns into court only 57 percent of the time. Federer went 4 of 18 on Novak’s second serve: That’s a figure that reads like one of his poorer days on break point conversions. Cincinnati is one of the faster courts, but Federer’s returns-in-play stats tell a story this week: He went 74%, 70%, 73%, then 67% against David Goffin (who was playing with a dodgy shoulder) and 57 on Sunday.
I asked Federer after the match about the returns – his a struggle, Novak’s aggressive. He told me, “Yeah. It was definitely not my best day on the return. That’s it. It was just awful… But missing every second serve on the forehand side, I don’t know what that was about.”
Djokovic was much the more consistent player today, and Federer (perhaps understandably) didn’t want to dwell on his own play – he told the next questioner:
“[It’s] a bit frustrating, but I guess these matches just unfortunately happen sometimes. And then Novak, you know, he’s a great champion and this is what it should be about, this press conference; not about me missing second serve returns. It’s about him making history. That’s my opinion.
“We can go into whatever points you want, but I think this is what the headline should be about. This is an amazing accomplishment, and I hope he’s extremely happy about his moment.”
Djokovic at one point brought off a near carbon copy of The Shot – the 2011 cross-court forehand return that saved a match point and is one of the defining moments of his career. It was a testament to his control of this match that it seemed more like another demonstration of excellence than a bolt from the blue.
For the first time this week there were many Serbian flags in the crowd, and vociferous calls of “Nole! Nole!” rang around the stadium several times. When Federer fended off a 0-30 deficit to force Djokovic to serve out the match, the crowd’s cheers and applause seemed more sympathetic than exultant. Djokovic held serve in a composed manner, then turned to his box with his arms raised in happiness – but (to my eyes) it was also a composed emotion, not raw elation or defiance. In press after the match he told us it was his best match of the week:
Q.You felt you played your best match today?
NOVAK DJOKOVIC: For sure. Roger wasn’t obviously at his best. He missed a lot of returns. He had also seems like a difficult time to move. You know, he was not really playing as well as he did in previous matches this week, but at the same time, you know, I thought I was solid. I didn’t allow him to, you know, come to the net and be aggressive too much, and I tried to kind of hold ground and protect the line.
It’s much easier said than done when you’re playing Roger, especially in these conditions where he loves playing here. Everything happens really, really fast and there is not much time to think or to construct the points, so you really need to be alert all the time, you know, especially against him.
I’m very pleased the way I held my nerves at the end, you know. And even when I lost the break of serve in the second set, I managed to rebreak the next game and get back on the right track.
Federer told English and Swiss press that Djokovic and Nadal, having split Canada and Cincinnati, and Roland Garros and Wimbledon before, are favorites in New York. That sounds right to me.
So here we are again – it’s 2018, and the Big 3 are in each others’ sights as we head into the last major of the year. The talk about the men’s game at the start of the week was about Tsitsipas, Shapovalov and Zverev; at the end of the week, the ATP’s old guard is still up on the podium, still making history.
Rumors of their death have been exaggerated.