When the leading eight players in tennis hauled themselves to London this week in varying states of expectation after a draining 2019 campaign, two of them knew they had to ignore the creaking of tired bones to settle a private score.
On Thursday, in the final round-robin match of the 2019 Nitto ATP Tour Finals, Roger Federer gets his shot at redemption against Novak Djokovic, whom he could not beat in the Wimbledon final four months ago, the longest in the tournament’s history, despite holding two match points and the loud love of Centre Court.
However, Federer will be encouraged that he won more quickly and convincingly in two sets against Matteo Berrettini here on Tuesday afternoon than Djokovic did in losing a memorable dogfight against Dominic Thiem in the evening. This time it was Djokovic who blew two match points, as the world No 5 held his nerve to win a semi-final place, 6-7 (5), 6-3, 7-6 (5), striking 51 winners in two hours and 47 minutes.
Thiem said courtside, “This was a very special match, an amazing atmosphere against a legend of our game. I was in the zone from the first point but I was playing the best returner in the game. I had a bit of luck here and there. It’s a match I’ll never forget.”
Djokovic and Federer, meanwhile, will meet for the 49th time in the 10th ATP Finals to be held in the capital before a move to Turin in 2021. Federer has won the title six times but, remarkably, not since he beat Jo-Wilfried Tsonga in 2011. Djokovic, younger by six years, has five wins, three of them in finals against Federer. There will be little in it on Thursday.
Federer ensured the match will have spice and relevance when he gave world No 8 Berrettini a tennis lesson in an hour and 18 minutes, and his 7-6 (2), 6-3 win repaired some of the damage he sustained in the first round against a rampant Thiem.
“Maybe it took me a few days, a couple of weeks at most, to get over the Wimbledon loss,” Federer admitted. “I still thought I played a great final and a great tournament, beating Rafa [Nadal] there along the way. No, I’m excited playing against him.”
Djokovic had to red-line time and again to stay with the Austrian in the best match of the tournament so far – and the first three-setter – but he has time to recover. If he wins, he simultaneously leap-frogs Nadal to finish the year No1 in the world for the sixth time, which would equal the achievement of Pete Sampras. There is much at stake.
A double-fault in the tie-break cost Thiem the first set; it was desperately tight. Djokovic went 0-2 down in the second as Thiem took a grip in the exchanges. Only Janko Tipsarevic and Tsonga have come from a set down to beat him at this tournament; neither had Thiem’s all-round weapons.
He out-hit Djokovic in a couple of muscular rallies in the ninth game for two set points, elated when his opponent crashed the net post with a baseline forehand. They embarked on the third looking exhausted but committed. Down 1-3 after two hours, Djokovic edged back into the contest, winning one point with a busted string before breaking for 3-3.
Having looked in control, Thiem was two points from defeat when he clipped the line with an all-or-nothing forehand and held for 5-5. Against the flow he broke to love but Djokovic forced the tie-break, where he went 4-5 down. Thiem smashed mid-court for 6-4 and two match points. He dumped a backhand but ensured a semi-final place on the concluding point.
Earlier Federer blazed across the blue court with all the brilliance of a lodestar, the game’s guiding light still, at 38. Berrettini, new to the big-time at 23 but not dazzled by the tennis glitterati around him, stayed true to his strengths, serving at up to 145 mph, speed that will frighten everyone on the Tour. However, he could not stop the game’s strolling duke.
Even allowing for the racket-thumping speed of this surface, Federer showed his reflexes were still sharp enough to allow him to return the Italian’s thunderbolts awkwardly and consistently, and it was his defence as much as his pin-point attack that kept him alive in the tournament.
Berrettini, who was winning a Challenger in March when Federer was losing in the Indian Wells Masters final to Thiem, said later of his debut, “I’m playing against the best guys on the planet and maybe the best guys ever. So I’m proud of what I’m doing.”
More will be heard of him.