INDIAN WELLS, Calif. — It will be a battle of No. 1 vs. No. 2 on Sunday when defending champion Novak Djokovic and four-time champion Roger Federer take the court for the BNP Paribas Open final. Both men cruised through their semifinals, with Djokovic beating Andy Murray 6-2, 6-3 and Federer breaking Milos Raonic twice to win 7-5, 6-4.
It will be the 38th meeting between Djokovic and Federer and their second meeting of the 2015 season. Federer leads the head-to-head 20-17 and beat Djokovic to win the Dubai Championships last month 6-3, 7-5. Sunday's final is a rematch of last year's final, which Djokovic won 3-6, 6-3, 7-6 (3) to capture his third Indian Wells title.
Both men go into the match on a roll. Neither has lost a set through the tournament. Djokovic won the Australian Open and is 18-2 on the year. Aside from the blip from his third-round loss at the Australian Open to Andreas Seppi, Federer's record is spotless, winning two titles in Brisbane and Dubai and going 16-1 so far this year.
Though the win in Dubai should give Federer confidence, both men know the conditions in the desert favor Djokovic’s game. The quick hard court in Dubai is perfect for Federer’s offensive game but he will have to make adjustments on the slow court in Indian Wells. The court will give Djokovic more opportunities to defend and counter-punch, putting pressure on Federer to be more consistent and creative in his shot-making.
“I think that's what's interesting about playing here in Indian Wells,” Federer said. “You require a bit of everything, whereas maybe on faster courts maybe you can rely [on] just like outright dominating more with your serve and just going for one-two punches in the entire match and just putting pressure at all times with a quick court. Here it's not so possible. It’s going to be more strategic and more interesting in the process potentially.”
“He barely misses,” Federer said of Djokovic. “He moves great. He makes you go for the extra shot. This is one of the great hardcourt players we have seen, you know, in tennis. After losing so close last year I was quite disappointed, even though I was happy how I was playing.”
Federer has beaten two top-10 players in Tomas Berdych and Raonic to make his third final of the season, but the rallies were kept short in those matches. He's faced just three break points through five matches, saving two of them, but hasn't played a returner anywhere near Djokovic's caliber. Going into Saturday’s semifinal, Djokovic led the tournament in points won receiving second serve, winning 64 percent. In his semifinal, he won 52 percent of Murray's second serve points. He also outpaced the field in break points converted, succeeding on 59 percent of his chances (13 of 22). By comparison, Federer has converted 32 percent of his break points (15 of 47).
Against Djokovic, Federer will have to be prepared to grind out points, especially with how well Djokovic has returned serve all week. In his most impressive win of the week, Djokovic beat big-serving John Isner 6-4, 7-6 in the fourth round, despite Isner serving at over 80 percent in first serves. Djokovic then received a walkover from Bernard Tomic in the quarterfinals and needed less than 90 minutes to dispatch Murray in the semis.
“It's the ultimate final that right now I can have,” Djokovic said. “Probably the player that is in the best form. You know, in the last 12 months he's been playing some of his best tennis, I thought.”
“I like these big matches,” Federer said. “I have been playing so well and I don't feel tired. I feel great going into the finals, and I hope I can keep up this kind of a level. I know I need an extra-special performance tomorrow because Novak is going to push you there to come up with a lot of great shots in a row, which is not always easy to do.”
For Djokovic, a win would earn him his fourth Indian Wells title and tie him with Federer for the most titles here. Federer refuses to compare their rivalry to his storied one with Rafael Nadal, primarily because most of their matches early in Djokovic's career came at the semifinal stages of tournaments as opposed to finals. But his respect for the Serb’s commitment to continually improve his game and evolve into the best hardcourt player in the current game is unequivocal.
“Sometimes I wonder if everybody's willing to improve as much as Novak did,” Federer said. “It's been interesting to see him figure his game out, and I’m happy I can still hang with him. I must be quite honest, because he's in his absolute prime right now, and I enjoy the challenge of him. I hope he enjoys my challenge.”