On January 28, 2016, Novak Djokovic produced one of the most devastating displays in tennis history, pummeling Roger Federer 6-1 6-2 3-6 6-3 in just over 2 hours.
The match, in one of tennis’s storied rivalries, was the first time Djokovic took the lead in the head-to-head with his illustrious rival. Rather ironically, the match that broke the tie in their head-to-head started as a mismatch.
In many ways, Novak Djokovic is the successor to the dominant behemoth that Roger Federer was in his heyday. Both players dominated the tour in their best years, only losing to one player multiple times in their best years(Federer losing to Nadal 4 times in 2006, Djokovic losing to Federer 3 times in 2015).
Both players have been thoroughly dominant on hard and grass courts while being thwarted by Rafael Nadal on clay. And this match is an example of the striking similarities between Federer and Djokovic’s careers. Federer played the best match of his career in the 2007 Australian Open semifinal when he simply dominated Andy Roddick. Djokovic would do the same to Federer in 2016.
Federer won the toss and chose to receive, something that is rather odd given Federer had served first in his last two slam meetings against Djokovic. Djokovic smelled blood andnd some 22 minutes later, he had just given a lesson in consistent deep hitting to Federer. The Swiss great was confused and quite simply was blown off the court.
Federer would have been hoping for some respite after that first set beatdown. He desperately needed some change. He had just played his worst set of tennis, in terms of games won, since playing Monfils at the 2014 Davis Cup.
For the second set, Federer changed his racquet, hoping that could be the answer. As it turned out, it was anything but. Federer managed to delay Djokovic for ten more minutes and won one more game than the first set. The larger picture was scary. Djokovic had just played an even better set, going by his serving, his returning, his winners and unforced errors.
If there’s ever one ridiculous statistic to display Djokovic’s returning prowess, it was the 54-minute beatdown in the first two sets when Djokovic won more points on Federer’s serve than Federer himself (combined 55% of return points won for Djokovic in the first two sets). Take it together or take it individually set wise, it wouldn’t matter. Federer, one of the game’s best servers, had his serve taken to the cleaners by the ruthless Djokovic.
The third set was a much better one from Federer, as he got out of his lethargy and varied his game well. He won more return points than Djokovic in the set, earned his first break points of the match and protected his second serve much better. The result? He won a closely fought third set 6-3. The set, much more closely contested but Federer, with a slight tactical change was able to close it out.
The fourth set started after the officials closed the roof because of impending rain. Djokovic had lost just one indoor match in the last 3 years and that was to Federer in a largely inconsequential round-robin match in the 2015 ATP Finals.
It however seemed that Djokovic was a bit off as he fell 0-30 behind in his first service game. Federer then proceeded to make 4 straight return errors, essentially gifting the game to Djokovic. It was an opportunity missed for the Swiss. Djokovic wouldn’t give him any more chances in the match and would soon break and then serve the match out.
The important focus in this match should be how Federer fared in his last two encounters against Djokovic in Grand Slams. In Wimbledon, he lost in a tight 4 setter, in which he served impeccably for two sets but was otherwise tentative and didn’t attack the Djokovic serve enough.
In the US Open, Federer again lost in a tight 4 setter, but in a starkly different match in which he went on with a hyper-aggressive strategy to take the ball as early as possible and rob the opponent of time. Djokovic kept his composure and with a little help from Federer, was able to hold off the challenge.
The 2016 Australian Open match saw an amalgamation of the two strategies as far as Federer was concerned. It backfired.
Federer didn’t make nearly as many net-rushes on Djokovic’s serve as he did in the US Open final. He hit over his backhand more often than he did in the Wimbledon final. However, all of this resulted in muddled decision making. Federer wanted to stay aggressive but he didn’t want to commit to the net and get passed by Djokovic.
As a result, he pulled the trigger too early in the rallies and simply made more errors in the process. In the return games, Federer went back to slicing the returns compared to his more aggressive returning in the 2015 US Open final and it simply didn’t work out as Djokovic dominated the rallies. Pure numbers say it all. Federer sliced only 5% of his returns against Djokovic in that US Open match.
Back at the Australian Open, that number went up to 48%. Djokovic simply had more time in this match and it showed as he methodically, and at times brutally, crushed Federer both in tennis terms and in spirit.
At the same time, it’s important to give credit where it’s due. Federer won only 14% of his second serves in the first set. That was down to some phenomenal returning and subsequent depth in Djokovic’s groundstrokes.
If the tennis court was divided into three parts, with the first part being the service box, the second part being behind the service line and the third part being the back quarter of the court, we see that Djokovic’s returns off second serves in the first set landed 90% of the time in the second and third parts of the court and with pace that rushed Federer into making errors.
Djokovic’s serving was immaculate in the first two sets, winning a combined 86% of his first serves and 73% of his second serves. To understand how utterly ridiculous this statistic is, we only need to see Djokovic’s serving average on hard courts. His career first serve win percentage is 71% on HCs and his second serve win percentage is 58%. In other words, Djokovic went up by 15% from his usual serving numbers in the first two sets.
Looking at the numbers, it’s surprising that Federer even managed to take a set off Djokovic, who was putting up career-best figures at the time. Yet, he did, and that comes down to the tactical adjustment that Federer made in the third set. Federer mixed in more net points and when he was rallying with Djokovic, Federer, in the last two sets, actually took a step back and played a healthy mixture of low-pace slices and hard hitting flat groundstrokes depending on what the point demanded. More importantly, he made sure he didn’t make early errors in the rallies.
This allowed him to be more competitive and once Djokovic slightly lowered his level, Federer pounced. The fourth set was equally close but Djokovic took his chances while Federer missed his opportunities.
To sum it all up, I would revert to what tennis coach Craig O’Shannessy writes: “There are 8 ways to force errors out of your opponent”:
Federer mastered all eight of them in his prime years. Djokovic mastered it all in 2015. In the 2016 Australian Open, he gave a tennis lesson to Roger Federer in shot consistency, direction, depth, power, court positioning and taking away time from the opponent.
All this culminated in one of the most flawless hours of tennis any player has ever played in history and resulted in Roger Federer winning only 3 games in two sets- his worst performance since 2001.
Novak Djokovic had achieved the rare feat of making the great Roger Federer look old. It took him 10 years to finally take the lead in their head-to-head and one that he has never given up since.