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Novak Djokovic versus Roger Federer

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A classic match-up of the top two players in the world, top seeds here at the Western & Southern Open. What more could we ask for?

I’ve already stated that Djokovic seems to be obscured by the overwhelming media concern for Serena Williams’s pursuit of the elusive calendar year Grand Slam, which is certainly a monumental accomplishment (last achieved by Steffi Graf in 1988). But how can we ignore the dominance of Djokovic this year. He captured the Australian and Wimbledon titles, and lost to Stan Wawrinka in the finals at Roland Garros (French Open). And despite a few late potential injuries (elbow and abdominal strain), he looks like a strong candidate for a spot in the final Sunday in New York.

The curious thing though is that he just might end up facing his W&S Open opponent there as well. Roger Federer has breezed through the competition in the Queen City, without dropping a set. He bears a striking resemblance to the vintage version of himself, the graceful champion from a few years ago who seemingly was a guaranteed finalist in every grand slam. There is an intriguing difference, which was fully on display during today’s final match against Djokovic.

This Federer, new and improved, strikes with abandon. Glazing first serves. Righteous forehands. That beautiful one-handed backhand. Those lethal volleys at the net. He’s won 17 Grand Slams, so it feels like the pressure’s off. He continues to compete at a high enough level to reach the quarters or the semifinals. At 34, everyone respects the fact that he’s still a threat. So he’s enjoying the time on the court and he’s making the most of it.

And today, something else was evident in Federer, something that makes him far more dangerous than he was back in his heyday. He’s become aggressive and willing to adapt his approach in the moment.

Against Djokovic, serving at less than optimal levels, Federer pressed on the weaker second serves, striking from well within the baseline – at one point, he caught a half volley return seemingly as it came off the ground. This pressure didn’t allow Djokovic to get into as many points as he likely would have wanted. The charging style rendered him punch drunk and frustrated for the most part. Federer worked the point count higher and higher in almost all of Djokovic’s service games, while barely losing a point on his own serve.

There was little concern when the first set went to a tiebreak. Federer’s service wins were never in doubt, but how quickly he dug into Djokovic’s serves proved that he simply would not be denied this day. He claimed the set 7-6 (7-1), which to be honest wasn’t even as close as the abusive score might lead you to believe.

By the second set, Djokovic was broken in his first service game, thanks to a couple of double faults, and the rout was on. Federer’s impeccable service level dipped slightly (to well-above average), but he dazzled the crowd with lucky net cord winners and a cornucopia of shots that Djokovic could only shake his head at.

The Federer win (his 7th at the W&S Open) felt inevitable from the start, but what does it mean, moving forward? This blog, for the last couple of years, has been all about scouting and making predictions for the US Open. So, I’m going on record now, pushing Federer closer to earning his 18th Grand Slam title. He took Murray and Djokovic down here in Cincinnati, and while the best-of-five sets Glam matches mean he will have to work a little harder, it also means they have to work harder too, against a guy who is channeling the champion’s spirit he used to have with a free-swinging abandon that puts him on course to hang around for another couple of years, pestering the next-gen players who thought he would go quietly into the night.

Is it too early to say, 18 and counting? (tt stern-enzi)