NEW YORK – There are many good and civilized reasons for loving this matchup between Novak Djokovic and Roger Federer in the 2015 U.S. Open final. You have No. 1 vs. No. 2, the best player in the world against the best ever, the year’s most dominant force taking on the hardcourt season’s most intriguing revival. The stakes are high but hardly make-or-break, and the players’ current level and contrasting styles will make tennis wonks salivate. But come on: Doesn’t a little loathing make matters more intriguing?
Djokovic and Federer “don’t particularly like each other.” That’s how Djokovic’s coach, Boris Becker, put it in an autobiography released in June, and if Federer was quick to tell a German newspaper that Djokovic “behaves wonderfully and is extremely fair,” and if Djokovic retorted at Wimbledon that the world had “wrong connotations,” the vagueness of their responses left more than enough room to wonder. Becker, after all, was in position to know at least half the equation.
Still, this would all be mere gossip were it not for the mindgame that has broken out between Federer and Djokovic over the last month. Though Federer’s newly-hatched gambit of rushing to the service line to take his opponent’s second serve—the self-named SABR, Sneak Attack By Roger—seems purely tactical, it hits the same nerve of tradition and sporting behavior that touched off their original animus. And the fact that Djokovic, more than any player, has been unnerved by the new tactic all but ensures that SABR will factor somehow in Sunday’s match.
“If it makes sense—which I think it does—I’ll use it in the finals,” Federer said after his semifinals win on Friday over countryman Stan Wawrinka, 6–4, 6–3, 6–1. “I hope I’ll have the opportunity to do it.”
Who doesn’t? SABR’s impact has been the talk of Flushing Meadows. Federer first unleashed the move during his run to last month’s Cincinnati title, and won seven of his 11 forays against Djokovic in the final, including one attempt at 4–1 up in the first-set tiebreak. Djokovic promptly double-faulted three times in his next service game, lost in straights and handed Federer the current edge in their head-to-head record, 21–20.
“I don’t know what Novak’s thinking about it, but in Cincinnati he was impacted by it,” said former No. 1 Jim Courier. “He was discombobulated. It’s a great new tactic—and it is absolutely a menace.”
Djokovic has beaten Federer in six of their eight previous Grand Slam matches, including a four-set glide to the 2015 Wimbledon title. But he never began any of those with such an odd, Will-he-or-won’t-he? question hanging in the air.
“If Novak starts throwing in double-faults, that’s going to be crucial,” said former Wimbledon champ Pat Cash. “Roger sneaking in against Djokovic is a brilliant idea.”
Others aren’t so enthralled. Perhaps predictably, Becker called SABR “almost disrespectful” last week on British TV, and said his generation would have drilled the ball at Federer in retaliation. After Federer tried it—unsuccessfully—against Richard Gasquet in Wednesday’s quarterfinal, John McEnroe, too, said on the ESPN broadcast that he considered the play, “insulting.”
Gasquet, though, was hardly bothered. “It was crazy,” he said. “It was the first time a guy is doing this shot; in the tennis life I never saw that. Of course, it’s impressive.” Indeed, with one big exception, current players seem far less troubled by SABR than old timers. Wawrinka even tried it out in his own quarterfinal win.
“Not considering doing that,” Djokovic said Friday, after his semifinals dispatch of Marin Cilic, 6–0, 6–1, 6–2. “It worked a couple of times; it’s exciting shot for him. For the player opposite side of the net, not so much. So I have nothing else to say about that.”
Djokovic’s coolness to Federer’s innovation has been conspicuous throughout the Open fortnight, though it’s not clear if this is a matter of execution, fear or perceived taste. The latter would be ironic, considering how Federer long sniffed at Djokovic’s perceived gaucheness. Some call-outs were justified, such as when Federer called Djokovic “a joke” for his suspicious use of medical timeouts during a 2007 Davis Cup tie, or snapped during a match at Djokovic’s chattering family to “Be quiet, O.K.?”
That capped a series of snipes between Federer and Djokovic’s parents—and it’s notable that Djokovic began his evolution into today’s supreme professional as his family’s presence receded. But Federer also took odd offense at the harmless on-court imitations Djokovic performed in New York in ‘07, and seemed to view Djokovic’s go-for-broke, match-point forehand winner in the 2011 Open semifinals as somehow lacking in class.
“I mean, please. Look, some players grow up and play like that,” Federer said after. “I never played that way. I believe in ‘hard work’s gonna pay off’ kind of thing, because early on maybe I didn’t work my hardest. So for me this is very hard to understand how you can play a shot like that on match point.”
Since then, the two men have maintained a highly respectful public exchange, complete with by rote compliments about their respective achievements. They’ve also switched roles: If anyone’s now the tour radical, it’s Federer. Long a traditionalist who balked at equipment change, instant replay or use of a drop shot, he has parlayed an openness to all three—and more—into a startling surge at the age of 34.
After overcoming recurrent back problems in 2013, the 17-time Grand Slam winner began yoga and core exercises, switched to a bigger—by seven square inches—and lighter racket, hired a new coach in Stefan Edberg, and committed himself to a relentlessly aggressive attack. It is a game perfectly tailored for someone with his speed and hands, as well as age, and his backhand may well be better than ever.
“Obviously the racket’s been the big difference for his serve,” Cash said. “I had him probably not in my top-ten servers of all time until the last couple years, and now he’s in my top-five with Sampras, Goran [Ivanisevic], maybe Richard Krajicek. He’s just so consistent. He’s got that second serve with this new racket, and it’s just got so much more snap on it.”
As for SABR, Federer dismisses Becker’s charge of disrespect and seems hardly bothered by the idea that he might be thought of as unsporting. “Guys were almost doing that against me back in the day,” he said. “I remember Max Miryni and [Tim] Henman standing there, like, ‘Alright,’ holding up their finger up, ‘I’m coming up. Whatever second serve you want, you’ll have to hit it past.’
“I remember Spaniards standing outside the doubles alley waiting to hit a forehand on clay because my second wasn’t as good yet. So I faced all that stuff, as well. I’m actually in a standing position when they are serving, and then only once they toss it that’s when I run; they don’t actually see me, in my opinion. Whatever works, you know? As long as it’s in the rules, I think you should be able to use it.”
The fact that Federer still seeks any edge is something that Edberg, a six-time Grand Slam champion himself, finds hard to fathom. “I retired at 30: I couldn’t take it anymore mentally, [though] physically I could have played another four or five years,” he said. How does Federer do it? Edberg shrugged. “I would say that Roger is an amazing person both on and off the court,” he said.
Meanwhile, as Federer tinkered, the 28-year-old Djokovic got married, fathered a son and grew more serious. He owns nine Grand Slam titles, and his fight through illness in Australia and surprise tears after the loss at Roland Garros signal an urgency to grab more. Add in another win in New York, and Djokovic’s steady brilliance this year—four major finals, wins in Melbourne and Wimbledon, a 62-5 record—will surpass a once-unmatchable 2011 run. “I want to get to that final step on Sunday, and get my hands on that trophy,” Djokovic said Friday. “I’m used to all the expectations and pressure. It’s part of what I do.”
Djokovic also danced on court with a rowdy fan early in the fortnight, but that was an anomaly. He has become far more controlled, far less the “Djoker” figure that so annoyed Federer once. Djokovic has become all business.
“He looks for perfection, every single time,” Becker said after Friday’s match. “He’s not satisfied with being mediocre, in any practice session or any match. Even after today? I’m sure when we go over tomorrow about today, he’ll find one or two shots he didn’t like. That’s the driving force in his career. He really wants to be perfect.”
Asked if he had Djokovic-type focus when he was battling Edberg for titles, Becker shook his head. “No,” he said. “I wish I would have had a little bit of him. I would have won more Grand Slams.”
Still, Djokovic’s time in Flushing has been anything but easy. He fought heat and nerves early on, overcame a bout of dizziness in the third round and became agitated when the crowd turned against him after he lost a set in the fourth. “I cannot allow myself to do that,” he said. But Djokovic remained edgy in a four-set quarterfinals win over Feliciano Lopez, and Cilic’s impaired ankle made it hard to tell if his semifinals romp was a result of easy pickings or composure restored.
“Novak’s been on tilt in this tournament,” Courier says. “But that’s one of his great assets: He can go through episodes—had a physical episode in the semifinals and finals of the Australian Open where it looked like he may not finish—but then he recovers and levels off. It’s like a plane going through really bad turbulence, just changing altitude and finding smooth air. He’s found a way to manage those ups and downs better over the years.”
But now here’s one last bump, when you least expect it: Federer restored, and coming fast in a whole new way.