Federer keeps finding the formula on the grandest stages

 - Alex Sharp

The 20-time Grand Slam champion rolled back the years and is now seeking a seventh ATP Finals title

Roger Federer during the 2019 US Open©Corinne Dubreuil/FFT

The 20-time Grand Slam champion, seeking a seventh ATP Finals title, rolled back the years with a riveting round-robin triumph over rival Novak Djokovic.

“To hit the spots the way I did today is definitely special… I feel good, I feel young. But I think it’s the haircut.”

At 38-years-old, Roger Federer (with a razor-sharp new haircut) continues to defy his doubters.

The six-time champion hasn’t held the ATP Finals trophy aloft since 2011 and very few would be able to say they predicted the exemplary exhibition of tennis orchestrated by the Swiss maestro on Thursday night.

Respect of the highest order

Novak Djokovic had won the previous four encounters with Federer, including saving two match points in the instant-classic Wimbledon final back in July. The 49th instalment of their trilogy was widely tipped in Djokovic’s favour, with the Serbian still chasing the year-end No.1 ranking in London.

“Well, it motivates me. I mean, it shows me it's possible,” said Djokovic afterwards with a smile, hailing Federer’s supreme longevity.

“What he has achieved over the years and what he's still showing on the court is phenomenal. He's a role model even for me that I'm one of his rivals and one of the toughest opponents I had in my career. Looking at his career and what he still is doing, it just inspires you.”

That is respect of the highest order for Federer.

A first victory over Djokovic since 2015

Rewind to Sunday and Dominic Thiem dismantled a misfiring Federer. The 20-time Grand Slam champion’s level jumped up several levels to then oust Matteo Berrettini in straight sets.

That meant Federer and Djokovic were placed in a shootout for a ticket into the semi-finals. The statistics from a performance like this don’t truly tell the tale, but the 38-year-old only lost three points on serve.

Federer could sense his opponent was struggling, off his ruthless usual self, pouncing with piercing shots and lethal accuracy to stamp 6-4, 6-3 onto the scoreboard.

A first victory over Djokovic since 2015 evidently meant a lot to the fan favourite, launching into the air with an abundance of air time.

“There is a lot that goes into a match like this. I spoke at length to the team before, probably over an hour 15 about all the different possibilities about what can happen,” revealed Federer.

“I felt from the get-go I had good rhythm off the baseline and on the serve and that I felt like he was living dangerously if he was not going to play great tennis. That was a good feeling to have, but then again, that doesn't mean much because Novak has done an unbelievable job in his career to find ways to either make you play bad or to just be better on you on the day or squeeze another victory out like the way he did at Wimbledon.

“Tonight was one of those nights where I was clear in the game plan. I got what I kind of expected, and it was a great feeling at the very end. The reaction showed.”

Novak Djokovic and Roger Federer changing ends during the Wimbledon 2019 final©Corinne Dubreuil/FFT

Chance of redemption

The hype surrounding the match signalled a chance of redemption for Federer after that brutal Wimbledon final.

Asked on court what was different this time round, the Swiss responded with a smirk, “I won match point.”

The was no talk of revenge.

“From my standpoint, I also didn't know I hadn't beaten him in a few years. Didn't feel that way because it was so close in Paris and in Wimbledon against him,” continued the world No.3, who has lifted four titles so far in 2019.

“I'm just happy at the level I could play, and obviously it's always special beating Novak, even more so of what happened, but I didn't feel like I had to get rid of the ghosts or anything like that. I feel like I moved on pretty quickly after that.

“I have been playing very well this season, and I think this victory proves that today.”

Ardent fans

2019 might belong to newly re-crowned world No.1 Nadal and Djokovic, with two majors a piece, but no-one in the men’s game can unify and excite a crowd quite like Federer.

Every one of his 23 winners on Thursday night was met with an eruption of noise, Federer’s on court interview had to be delayed due to the length of applause from the ardent fans.

Federer, hoping to embrace the feel-good factor, will need to wield his racket with the same compelling artistry up against semi-final opponent Stefanos Tsitsipas.

The Greek has relished playing on debut in the prestigious ATP Finals, with sublime straight sets passages past Daniil Medvedev and Alexander Zverev, before a rollercoaster three-hour defeat at the hands of Nadal on Friday.

Tsitsipas will have to dig very deep

Tsitsipas has been sauntering around the ocean blue court of the O2 Arena, playing some pristine tennis and Federer will be wary of the Next Gen star’s potential following the 21-year-old’s victory in their Australian Open fourth round battle.

Federer did Nadal a favour in overcoming Djokovic, enabling the Spaniard to remain at the summit as the year-end No.1. In return, Nadal might have also managed to deplete Tsitsipas’ resources in Friday’s marathon match.

If a fresh Federer can find the formula to replicate his relic of a performance against Djokovic, then Tsitsipas will have to dig very deep.