London: Roger is rattled

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Federer is fighting himself

FROM THE ATP WORLD FINALS IN LONDON – The 17,800 strong at the 02 Arena were unequivocally in Roger Federer’s corner. There were a handful of Novak Djokovic’s fans on site cheering the Serbian on, and the London crowd certainly respects and perhaps even like the Serbian, but the volume level when the Swiss struck winners lifted the rooftop. For Djokovic, it was more polite applause that was acoustically absorbed by the courtside advertisement boards.

Federer came into the Tuesday contest with  a 16-14 record against Djokovic, but had lost 8 of their last 11 contest since the start of the Serbian’s great 2011. Of those three wins, only one was on hard courts. Of Djokovic’s eight wins, six had come on hard courts, including a win in last year’s final at the o2. But Federer did hold a little hope against the rock solid Serbian as he had played him tough in the Bercy semis last week. He said his game was coming around. He had rediscovered his feel for the ball. He knew he was playing better. He had figured out that his ‘back problems’ and trying to play his way through them was why he had fallen to No. 7 and had only won a singles title in 2013, his worst count since 2001.

Just like in Paris, Federer showed flashed of brilliance. He can no longer dominate Djokovic with his serve, but who really can hit through the world’s most accomplished returner? When he’s on, Federer can play fairly steady from the backhand side with Djokovic, even if he can’t crack winners often off the wing (he finished with four backhand winners in the match). He can slightly over match Djokovic from the forehand side when he is clicking, but he has to work very hard to get himself into a position to hit a forehand winner and the now world No. 2 runs down just about everything. He can get enough of the Serbian’s returns in play and if he gets Djokovic way out of position, he can also have success at the net, but a consistent net rushing strategy does not work for him as his opponent loves a target.

As Djokovic said two days ago, Federer has slowed down a little, which is natural for any 32-year-old. So going end to end in baseline rallies and being able to rip winners from any position is not as feasible as it once was for the Swiss. He can’t out-steady Djokovic, can’t overpower him and is nowhere near as confident as he is these days. It can now be said that the 17-time Grand Slam champ  is a bona-fide underdog against Djokovic every time, anywhere they play.

With all that said, Federer did play a brilliant tiebreak and had fans on their feet. He snared a delicious point from Djokovic to go up 3-2 when after the Serb had run down a number of crunching forehands and smoothed a sharp volley winner off a rocket shot. He won the breaker by retrieving a biting  drop shot and successfully lifting a lob over his foe’s head.

But then he faded fast. He was broke to open the set, Djokovic put up a wall behind the baseline and then in hurried wipe of his furrowed brow, Federer was gone in a mere 35 minutes, producing just five winners to Djokovic’s 13 in the set. He ended the fun but sloppy contest with 27 winners and 45 unforced errors, stats he would like to forget. Djokovic had 29 winners and 35 unforced errors, but he managed to break the Swiss five times.

“Slow here and it’s the first match, so there’s going to be errors,” Federer said. “ There’s a lot of neutralizing going on.  You have to take a lot of chances to get the ball past Novak.  Eventually that draws errors out of you. “

Federer then contradicted himself  a bit when asked about whether the court is playing slow. He seems to be of two minds about it. He did say that the switch of venues from Paris/Bercy had made it more difficult from him and also noted that Djokovic struggled to make the adjustment.

Fed not upbeat
But Federer, who is nursing a cold, was in a pretty sour mood later. He was asked whether he could take any positives out of grabbing two sets from Djokovic in the past four days. He reacted strongly and not with just a little bit of sarcasm.

“Great, we’re positive. It was great to win two sets off Novak, and losing four. Losing a match, it’s really exciting. But I don’t know what to tell you.  The season’s not done yet.”

Federer, who has played better during the fall than he did the summer, also admitted that he is fighting himself

“I think at this point it’s very mental, just making sure I don’t get too negative on myself because of the loss today,” he said. “It was against Novak after all.  It’s not against some journeyman. So I feel like it was very close, but then again didn’t make it. It’s a positive that it was three sets. Don’t really care. But I just have to make sure I stay positive right now in my mind, which I am. And I’m looking forward to the next matches. And I’m happy how I recovered from Paris. That was really key for me to see today how I was going to feel. Maybe I did have some ups and downs, but that’s more towards the season I played and more I think a lot of matches. Then I just got to play my game. It does remain indoors.  So I think I have to just make sure I take it to my opponents rather than trying to make the plays too often, what I was trying to do today. … But obviously it’s been a tough season overall. So I guess I’m just rattled at times, with my level of play consistently.”

If he doesn’t turn it around in two days, he will be in danger of not reaching the semis of an event he was won a record six times.

Nadal conquers countryman
When Rafael Nadal  went on court for his semifinal last week at the Bercy/Paris Maters against David Ferrer, was he thinking that it wouldn’t be too bad if he lost the contest and arrived in London a little earlier? Perhaps not consciously, but he was less than stellar in that semifinal. He did get that extra day of rest that Ferrer did not and, on Tuesday, he stomped his countryman 6-3 6-2. Nadal had better depth on his shots and also varied his groundstrokes more, which forced Ferrer out of his comfort zone.

As Nadal said later, Ferrer was a little tired after his run to the Paris final (where he lost to Djokovic). However, Ferrer could have pulled up mentally a little better during his very erratic afternoon, certainly more impressively than his stat line: he nailed 16 winners, forced Nadal into seven and committed 33 unforced errors, a poor minus-10 ratio. Nadal was by no means perfect and can play a great deal better but ended the day with  nine winners, forced Ferrer into 21 errors and committed 21unforced errors, a decent plus-nine mark. Nadal is now just one win away from securing the year end top spot.

“In Paris he was able to hit the winner lot of times in the first shot,” said Nadal, recalling Ferrer’s leaping, fearsome forehand. “I had mistakes in my first shots where I hit the ball.  I tried to hit against his backhand too many times there.  He was quick and he cover very well his backhand with his forehand.  From that position, he takes the control of the point from inside.  Was very difficult to be back on the point. So I changed little.”

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