Sunday 17 December 2017

Djokovic blocking Federer's path to tennis history at Wimbledon

Old rivalries will be renewed on court and among coaching staff

Roger Federer - 'The greatest player in the history of the game, producing arguably his finest Wimbledon performance at the age of 33'
Roger Federer - 'The greatest player in the history of the game, producing arguably his finest Wimbledon performance at the age of 33'

Simon Briggs

During Roger Federer's semi-final victory against Andy Murray, the Royal Box was packed with sporting legends: Alex Ferguson, Sachin Tendulkar, Thierry Henry, Bjorn Borg. Even by their standards, though, this was quite a storyline. The greatest player in the history of the game, producing arguably his finest Wimbledon performance at the age of 33.

Just a couple of seasons ago, Federer appeared to be drawing towards the end of a glorious career. The Swiss saw his improbable sequence of 36 consecutive grand slam quarter-finals come to an end here at the hands of Sergiy Stakhovsky in 2013. He lost to Tommy Robredo at the US Open, in a match full of uncharacteristic lapses of judgment.

However, he went away the following winter and made changes: a new expanded racket-head, a new and more famous coach in Stefan Edberg. Now he is back to play in his tenth Wimbledon final, and perhaps to outstrip Pete Sampras by lifting the title for the eighth time. Yet the man in his way is no pushover, either.

Novak Djokovic is now an eight-time slam champion in his own right, having outlasted Murray in the Australian Open final five months ago. Only last year, he beat Federer in a compelling five-set final here, settling into a vein of dead-eyed accuracy in the last few games that made it clear he was simply never going to miss. Is there a personal grudge between these two giants? It is an "open secret" that they do not get along, according to Djokovic's coach, Boris Becker.

This claim featured in his new book, released a few days before the start of this tournament, and was cannily judged to provide bonus publicity. But it is also rather out of date - as Becker's pronouncements on social media notoriously used to be in the days when he was just a BBC commentator.

It is true that there used to be a bit of needle to this relationship. We heard Federer complain about the noisy support of Djokovic's parents, Srdjan and Dijana, in Monte Carlo in 2008. And we also remember Federer's outrage at Djokovic's slapped service return that flew past him in the 2011 US Open semi-final. Federer went on to lose in five sets, and later complained: "For me, this is very hard to understand. How can you play a shot like that on match point?"

Yet relationships change, and in this case the advent of children has made a difference. When his first-born son Stefan arrived in October last year, Djokovic made a point of consulting Federer about the niceties of touring life with a family on hand.

"Becker really has no idea," Federer said. "He should know me well enough to know that I am a relaxed guy. It is always dangerous when you are talking a lot. Sometimes you say things you should not. Of course I didn't like what he said. After all, he was once my idol. It is well known that I initially had problems with Novak's manner on court but now he behaves wonderfully and fairly. I have no problem with Novak."

The controversy has only added to what is already an interesting coaching subplot.

It is not often that you see the same two players contest back-to-back Wimbledon finals, as Federer and Djokovic are about to do. (In fact Federer has now experienced this sort of deja vu three times in his career, having previously faced Andy Roddick and Rafael Nadal in consecutive years.) But they will need to come back again next year to equal the three successive finals contested by Becker and Edberg between 1988 and 1990. Now these two '80s greats find themselves on opposite ends of the seats above the scoreboard, which is where the players' backroom staffs camp out.

And this memorable ice-and-fire rivalry is being recreated vicariously through their respective charges on the court. While the advent of the so-called "supercoaches" is clearly a boon for TV directors, they cannot expect too much expression from the poker-faced -Edberg, who failed even to crack a smile during Federer's straight-sets evisceration of Murray on Friday.

Becker is a little more animated. "There are moments when he looks up and he needs assurance that what he is doing is right," he told the BBC on the eve of this tournament. "And then we have our ways about it to tell him it's good or tell him it's bad. And then it's up to him to change it."

That interview prompted a short-lived cheating storm, as Becker was accused of breaking the on-court coaching rule. Yet his primary impact takes place in practice, where he and Edberg have brought all of their grass-court expertise to bear.

Net play sometimes feels like the

exclusive preserve of doubles these days, but Federer came in behind his serve 17 times against Murray and made 42 other net-rushes.

Djokovic, too, has worked on his

volley, although he has been noticeably less keen to use those skills this summer than he was on his way to the 2014 title.

It feels as though his confidence might have been dented by the bat-tering he took from Stan Wawrinka in the French Open, causing him to revert to his primary setting of defensive rigour.

But it is essential for his prospects today that he does not let Federer dictate too many points.

Will we see Djokovic's traditional Wimbledon celebration today, where he bends down to pluck a piece of grass and then eats it? Or will it be the more conventional Federer star salute?

Either way, this final is shaping up as a great conclusion to what has been a magnificent tournament. Centre Court, once again, is the hottest ticket in town.

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