For a third Grand Slam in a succession, Roger Federer’s path to Grand Slam number 18 will have to go through the best player in the world. Federer painfully came up short in the final of both Wimbledon and the U.S. Open in 2015, as Novak Djokovic took his haul of Grand Slam titles into double digits. Their latest and 45th meeting at the Australian Open on Thursday will only be a semifinal, but the level of anticipation will be in no way diminished.
The buildup to their latest clash started as soon as the draw for the Australian Open was revealed. And, albeit with a scare along the way, the two players have navigated their way through the draw to make the matchup a reality.
For Federer, progress to the final four has been routine. Just one set has been lost along the way, to Grigor Dimitrov in the third round, as the Swiss has continued to prove himself capable of producing sparkling tennis despite closing in on his 35th birthday. On Tuesday, he disposed of sixth seed Tomas Berdych in straight sets after coming through an opening set tie-break. And it leaves him just one win away from another shot at adding to his record haul of Grand Slam titles and getting his first since the 2012 Wimbledon.
“It would mean a lot to me, no doubt about it,” he said after beating Berdych. “It's part of the reason why I guess I'm still playing. I feel like I'm competitive at the top. I can beat all the guys on tour. It's nice now that in the last three slams that I've been as consistent as I have been. I'm playing good tennis, fun tennis for me anyway. I really enjoy being able to come to the net more like back in the day. So I'm very pleased.”
Yet to earn that prize he must find a way to overcome the toughest challenge in tennis. As well as beating Federer at Wimbledon and the U.S. Open, Djokovic also claimed the trophy in Australia as part of 11 titles won in a dominant 2015. He started this year in impressive fashion, too, when brushing Rafael Nadal aside in the final of the Qatar Open.
That form has largely continued at the Australian Open, although with one notable exception. In the fourth round, the Serbian endured an excruciating five-set battle with Gilles Simon in which he hit 100 unforced errors. Djokovic later revealed that he decided to take the following day off from practice as a result; a decision that appeared a shrewd one when the world No. 1 returned to the court on Tuesday to crush former U.S. Open finalist Kei Nishikori in straight sets. Still, he expects to have to be at his absolute peak when Federer is the man standing on the other side of the net.
“Roger is playing really terrific tennis in last two years,” he said. “We played two Grand Slam finals last year. I know very well how good he plays, especially in the later stages of a major event. He always makes you play your best. My best is what is going to be necessary to win against him. Hopefully I'll be able to deliver.”
The two rivals go into their latest meeting with their head-to-head tally tied at 22 apiece. Although Djokovic came out on top in both of their Grand Slam meetings last year, as well as in the final of the ATP World Tour Finals, Federer did beat him three times. His last win over Djokovic in a Grand Slam, though, came at the French Open in 2011.
Prediction: It is no coincidence that Federer’s three victories over Djokovic last year all came in best-of-three-set matches. The huge challenge for Federer is to be able to get the better of Djokovic, who is so relentless both physically and mentally, over the course of five sets. It is why, for the Swiss in particular, the first set will be of huge importance. In the final of both Wimbledon and the U.S. Open, Djokovic struck first, and although Federer was able to fight back and grab the second set on each occasion the task of maintaining his superiority proved too much.
Looking for encouragement, Federer could benefit from this latest clash happening a round earlier, and thus having one less match in his legs. Yet Djokovic is near unbreakable right now, without a single weakness in his game. The struggles against Simon will be a wakeup call, but the problems he encountered against the counter-punching Frenchman will not be an issue when facing the aggressive approach of Federer. While Federer’s commitment to going forward could well see him again inflict some damage and get a set, Djokovic will once more be too strong over the distance.
Predicted score: Djokovic in four sets.
Betting odds (via Oddschecker):
Novak Djokovic: 4/11
Roger Federer: 9/4
Start time: Thursday, 3:30 a.m. EST