LONDON — It had to end this way. No. 1 Novak Djokovic vs. No. 2 Roger Federer, a back-and-forth showdown that was impossible to call until the final point, which served as the only difference in the match.
And oh what a point it was. Having stifled Federer with his acrobatic defense for more than two hours, his body literally bending to impossible lengths but never breaking, Djokovic slid wide to his backhand side and nailed a screaming winner up the line past a charging Federer to seal a 7-6 (6) 7-5 victory, win his second ATP World Tour Finals and put to rest any questions about the strength of his quietly dominant 2012 season.
Final point tally: Djokovic 96, Federer 95. Yes, it was that close.
It was the 29th meeting between the two men who lead the rankings based on their consistency all year. Djokovic followed up a historic 2011 by repeating as Australian Open champion, being the only man to play three Grand Slam finals, collecting six titles and recording a tour-leading and career-high 75 match victories. He made the semifinals or better in 15 of 17 tournaments — the same number as Federer, who won Wimbledon, reclaimed the No. 1 ranking for the first time in more than two years, finished 71-12 and equaled Djokovic with six titles, one short of David Ferrer’s tour high. They came into this season-ending final having split four meetings this year, and while Djokovic already clinched the year-end No. 1 position, Federer had a prime chance to plant a seed in everyone’s mind as to who was actually the best player of 2012.
Federer, a six-time champion, quickly raced to a 3-0 lead in the first set as Djokovic was slow off the blocks. But any thought that the match might go the way of their Cincinnati final, which saw Federer drop a 6-0 set on Djokovic before the Serb woke up to contest the second set, was quickly set aside.
“It’s not the first time that Roger starts against me so well,” Djokovic said. “I’ve experienced before his aggressivity, really trying to put his mark on the match. It’s what he’s done again. I didn’t know in which direction the match would really go, but I tried to convince myself that I will make a turnaround and I will fight.”
That quality was the hallmark of Djokovic’s week, as he kept his cool and maintained his focus to mount comebacks. He was a set down to both Andy Murray and Juan Martin del Potro earlier in the tournament and managed to wrench back control of those matches and win. It’s an eerie calmness that descends on Djokovic, who is still prone to the angry outburst here and there before regaining his focus. It’s a forced calmness and one that’s written all over his face. You can see he’s boiling inside but he almost looks like he’s about to fall asleep. It doesn’t come naturally to the fiery Serb but he’s learning, and if the year-end championships were the final test, he passed it with flying colors.
Djokovic quickly broke back to level the match at 3-3 and he served for the first set at 5-4 only to send wayward forehand after wayward forehand to get broken back. To say Djokovic gave the break away would be inaccurate. Federer gave him nothing, and the two headed to a first-set tiebreaker that turned into a highlight reel. Down set point, Federer saved it with one of the points of the year, an audaciously creative no-look forehand crosscourt passing shot that left Djokovic — and anyone else watching — stunned.
That video may go into the vault that contains all the evidence of Federer’s genius, but it was Djokovic who came away with the set. Tied at 6-6, Federer followed up that hot shot with a poor backhand miss to give Djokovic his third set point. The Serb coolly took it with an inside-out forehand winner, throwing a quiet fist pump to his box.
The second set would follow the same script. Federer broke in the first game and held on to the lead to serve for the set at 5-4, only to lose the final three games of the match. As Djokovic nailed his signature shot, turning insane defense into even more insane offense with his strength and flexibility, he unleashed a roar we haven’t seen since he outlasted Rafael Nadal in the Australian Open final in January.
“What he does well, even in defense, he stays somewhat offensive,” Federer said. “[T]hat, I think, is what separates him from the rest a little bit.
“Maybe a bit of regret because I had the lead twice first before him. At the end of the day, that doesn’t matter. You have to get over the finish line in the set and then obviously at the match. He was better at that today.”
Djokovic said the victory was for his ailing father, who is still in the hospital recovering from a health scare. But the win clearly meant a lot to Djokovic, too. He denied Federer a third consecutive title at the World Tour Finals and defeated the best indoor player on a court that has suited him so well over the years. As he reflected on his season — which came on the heels of his 2011 run of three Slams, 10 titles and a 43-match winning streak — Djokovic says his ability to deal with the pressure and expectations in 2012 made his victories sweeter. He’ll finish the year ahead of Federer by more than 2,500 points, a good cushion as he tries to defend his Australian Open title in a mere two months.
“I actually feel even more satisfied right now than last year, even though I had an incredible 2011,” he said. “I feel this year, considering the circumstances that I had to face on and off the court, expectations, all these things, I believe that this year has been even more successful for me.”