MASON, Ohio — No. 1 Roger Federer defeated No. 2 Novak Djokovic 6-0, 7-6 (7) on Sunday to win the Western & Southern Open for a record fifth time. And, before you ask, yes, you read that first-set score line correctly — the first bagel for either player against the other in 28 meetings.
Some thoughts on the 31-year-old Federer’s sixth title of the season and a puzzling performance from Djokovic, who hasn’t brought his best when it matters most lately:
• Serving up perfection: Federer was 47-of-47 in service games for the week, the third time he’s won a title without being broken. He faced only three break points in five matches — he made the final with victories over Alex Bogomolov Jr., Bernard Tomic, Mardy Fish and Stan Wawrinka — including none on Sunday against the best hard-court returner in the game.
Federer’s most impressive feat for the week was his ability to keep a reinvigorated Djokovic at bay late in the second set. By then, Djokovic had emerged from his first-set slumber, charging out of the changeovers looking like a man determined to break at all costs. Serving at 4-5 and then 5-6, Federer was able to hold at 15 twice, snuffing out Djokovic’s momentum and forcing a tiebreaker.
“This was probably the best week ever here in Cincinnati for me, never dropping my serve and beating Novak in the final,” Federer said after improving to 16-12 against Djokovic and 2-0 this year. “This was very sweet, no doubt about it.”
• Paging Novak Djokovic: Bidding for his first Cincinnati Masters title, Djokovic played early like a man who still had one foot in bed. With the stadium buzzing with anticipation for the tournament’s first final between No. 1 and No. 2 in the Open Era, Djokovic came out sluggish, subdued and unfocused in winning a mere 10 points in a 20-minute first set. The Serb, like Federer, entered the final having held serve all tournament, but Djokovic had four double faults and lost nine of 10 second-serve points in the first set on his way to being broken three times.
“I have no excuses for the bad performance,” said Djokovic, now 0-4 in finals here. “He was just the better player.”
Said Federer: “I was hoping for a good start, but not like that.”
Djokovic bounced back in the second set and proceeded to hold serve until the tiebreaker, where he even secured a set point before Federer fended him off. But overall this proved to be another in a string of curious matches in the last few months for Djokovic when facing other members of the Big Four. It’s a pattern dating to the clay season, one I thought Djokovic would break on Sunday. Instead, just like against Nadal at the French Open, Federer at Wimbledon and Andy Murray at the Olympics, Djokovic came in emotionally and physically flat.
The losses themselves aren’t surprising — no one is going to give you stick for losing to Nadal on clay, Federer on grass or a relatively fast hard court like the one on Sunday and Murray at the London Olympics — but the performances have been lackluster. It’s not like his form has been substandard otherwise. His title last week at the rain-plagued Rogers Cup in Toronto took tremendous mental fortitude given the circumstances, and he blasted through the field in Cincinnati without dropping before Sunday. The tennis is there for Djokovic; it’s the belief that’s lacking.
• Federer the U.S. Open favorite: Asked before the final about the importance of this matchup in advance of the U.S. Open (which begins on Aug. 27), Federer was his typically smooth, somewhat dismissive, yet accurate self. “I guess it will be helpful to win, but then again, it’s not going to decide the outcome of the U.S. Open,” he said. “We’re on opposite sides of the draw at the U.S. Open and might not even play each other. So there you have it.”
Even if we don’t read much into Sunday’s result, you can’t ignore Federer’s form over the last nine-and-a-half months. Federer has won nine titles since last November, six this year alone, and this summer he climbed back to No. 1 for the first time in two years. His quickness and agility stood out as I watched him from the courtside photo pit this week. Here we thought these guys were supposed to get slower after they hit 30, and yet Federer is still stopping and starting on a dime. Combine that quickness with his mental clarity in stepping in to take control of rallies with blink-and-you-miss-it decisiveness, and Federer has made a compelling argument that he’s the front-runner in New York.
At the beginning of the week Federer said he was ready to move past the Olympic final, where he was proud of his silver medal but disappointed by his play in a 6-2, 6-1, 6-4 loss to Murray. Sure enough, he put it behind him and rebounded perfectly here, matching Nadal for most Masters 1000 titles, with 21.
“That’s the kind of reaction I want to see from myself,” Federer said of rebounding from the gold-medal match. “I didn’t have a letdown. Even though I reached almost all goals already this year by securing a medal, winning Wimbledon and getting back it world No. 1, it’s important for me to push forward and give myself the best possible preparation for New York. Then if I can win tournaments, that’s even better. I really didn’t expect it. Same for Novak, I don’t think. We both didn’t expect to play so well right after the Olympics, even though we are world No. 1 and 2.”
• Top-four domination: Sunday’s outcome marked the 16th consecutive Masters 1000 tournament won by Federer, Djokovic, Nadal or Murray. Combine that with the current streak of 11 Grand Slam victories for Federer, Djokovic and Nadal (and 29 of the last 30), and this era of complete domination by the top four just keeps on truckin’.
While the stranglehold is great for the sport from a marketing standpoint, it’s now to the point where the spotlight needs to move off the top guys and focus on the rest of the field. Why can’t anyone else break through? Is it really because the top-four players are that much better at tennis than everyone else? Could be. Or is it because they’ve dominated for so long that they’ve broken the hope and spirit of everyone else? I’m more inclined to believe the latter. So does Federer. Asked whether Nadal’s upset loss to then-No. 100 Lukas Rosol in the second round of Wimbledon would make the Swiss more focused at the Slams, Federer said he never takes an opponent for granted.
“I do hope more guys ranked where Rosol is, or even better ranked, believe more in beating the top guys on the big stage,” Federer said. “It’s been happening not very often. It was just refreshing to see that it was possible for a guy like Rosol to come through.”