The men’s final at the U.S. Open tennis championship this year was a weird five-cornered contest. It was Roger Federer versus Roger Federer versus Novak Djokovic and Novak versus the spectators.
One of the players did not particularly seek spectator love but received loads of it anyway. That would be Federer. The other played in surly expectations of some coming his way but did not get almost any. That would be Djokovic. Interestingly, all of this was extraneous to their individual genius for the game.
At 34, Federer displays astonishing athleticism and carries his record-breaking 17 Grand Slam titles lightly. At 28, Djokovic too displays extraordinary physical agility albeit with a few trademark tumbles and already has 10 Grand Slam titles. It is not inconceivable that he might at least equal the Swiss legend’s record if not surpass it. He is just four titles away from matching Rafael Nadal and Pete Sampras. Not a lot of people readily recognize that the Serbian has firmly planted himself among the exclusive club of historic greats even though the grudging or even resentful response from the New York spectators may not have risen up to that.
The final on September 13 had Federer playing not just Djokovic but himself, the burden of being arguably the greatest player in tennis history. That might either explain or confuse the fact that he had 54 unforced errors and 23 break points of which he converted a measly four. Those two statistics alone should make one wonder if he is nearing the limit of his genius. But then one saw his remarkable half-volleys and sneaky returns to Djokovic serves and changed the mind about whether he is approaching his natural end as a player.
He has of course promised to return next year. The tennis half-volley is like the cricket half-volley in that both have the player hit the ball almost immediately as it pitches. Since the ball is not allowed to rise to any level it cannot really do whatever it is that the other player (in tennis) or the bowler (in cricket) might have intended it to do. It is a delightfully rude way to treat a serve.
Federer’s sneaky shot has him come inside the baseline just as the opponent is about to hit a second serve. The trick is to wait until the opponent tosses the ball. Once the ball is tossed the opponent is pretty much committed to it and cannot really change much. Federer is supposed to have invented it and hence it has been called SABRE or Sneaky Attack by Roger Federer. All this endears Federer even more to the crowd often much to Djokovic’s chagrin who still plays a classically competitive game. Federer plays with the assurance of someone who has already accomplished absolute greatness while Djokovic plays as someone trying to get there and even succeeding handsomely but without much love from those who come to watch.
It is a dynamic which has been commented upon by tennis writers. It is not something that Djokovic can do much about. It is entirely possible that if and when Djokovic surpasses Federer’s record he may still not inspire the kind of warmth that his Swiss rival has enjoyed. It has to do with Federer’s overall demeanor which is one of amiability efficiently hiding absolutely fierce determination to not give anything away at all at any point of any game. In contrast, Djokovic comes across as someone who might suddenly just chuck it all out of great annoyance. He may not necessarily do it but that is the sense he conveys.
There is nothing to suggest that Federer is planning to retire anytime soon, at least not for a year having committed to return to the 2016 U.S. Open. What makes Federer perhaps even more formidable in his approaching twilight period is that he is now enjoying the game for the sake of it and does not mind being inventive as evident in SABRE and half-volleys. He is more aggressive than before. In comparison, Djokovic is entering a period of consolidating his greatness by adding more titles to his name. While ten Grand Slams are plenty for anyone, he cannot but be mindful that there are three others ahead of him, one of whom is six years older and seven titles greater.
Winning those seven titles is likely to be his focus rather garnering some unconditional love from the average spectator.
(Mayank Chhaya is a Chicago based writer. The views expressed are personal. He can be contacted firstname.lastname@example.org)