At 9:57pm local time on an irrelevant Monday evening, India hosted its most relevant tennis match yet. For the next 29 minutes (yes, all of 29 minutes), it didn’t matter one bit that the set was exhibitional in nature. Or that it was part of a league struggling to find acceptance or elbow room in the tennis calendar.
For those 29 minutes, all that mattered was world No.1 Novak Djokovic and No.2 Roger Federer contested in New Delhi, and never before had players of this ranking, reputation and pedigree hit a tennis ball across a net on our soil.
At the IGI, they were welcomed with open arms, the welcome loudest when about 11,000 spectators stayed deafeningly silent during play. This made the players respond with their best – Djokovic constantly splitting his nimble legs while turning defence into offence, sometimes on multiple occasions on the same point; Federer bending down-the-line winners on the run and even once simultaneously snapping his spine, wrist and racquet while reaching a near-impossible overhead backhand smash – by far the toughest shot in the game.
For once, this once, it really didn’t matter who won. And to be honest, it was hard for anyone who wasn’t aware of the league’s ridiculous rules, rules that Federer had called unnecessary the previous day, to figure out who really did. The scorecard claimed that Federer had taken it 6-5, but after all the hugs and handshakes they returned to court for another game, quite like rockstars return to stage on popular demand for an encore.Here the encore was called a super shoot-out. But it didn’t matter. What it did was that at one stage there was an actual match point. And in Federer-Djokovic matches, these match-points tend to tell a story of its own. Remember the US Open semi-final in 2011?
Back then, Federer had conceded a two sets to love lead to watch the match slip into the fifth, in which he held his nerve to claw ahead to a 5-3 lead. Then he was serving at 40-15, with two match points in his pocket. He connected his first serve, going wide to Djokovic’s forehand. And what happened next defined Djokovic, if nothing else.
Far from playing a percentage shot, the Serb threw his body weight into his right elbow and snapped his wrist, crunching a return winner that screeched cross-court and kissed the very edge of the point where the tramline meets the baseline. Arthur Ashe Stadium exploded and in a din that never ceased to dwindle, Djokovic won the set 7-5.
“I would never do something like that,” Federer (who had, at this point, lost from match point in a Grand Slam not once but twice to Djokovic, the only two times in his career) would later say. “If I were him, I would have looked to construct my way back.” But Djokovic is more a believer in destruction. Constructive destruction. If not, he would’ve never rebuilt a waning career the way he has, going from a one-Slam wonder accused of play-acting injuries on the court in 2009 to becoming the most consistent player between 2011 and now.
An equal role
It could be argued that Djokovic’s presence in the greatest era of the game has played an equal role, if not greater, to Federer’s and Rafael Nadal’s. If Federer raised the level of the sport with his ethereal brilliance and gave birth to a top-spinning, anti-thesis in Nadal, causing a rivalry that took the game to another planet, then Djokovic’s emergence intersected perfectly with the juncture when Nadal’s dominance over the Swiss had spread rash-like to all surfaces.
Between Wimbledon 2011 and the French Open 2012, Djokovic and Nadal met in all four intermediate Grand Slam finals. Djokovic won the first three. Nadal, of course, won on clay. But when Nadal’s knees began wobbling this way and that, forcing him to cut short the last few seasons prematurely, Djokovic thrust upon self the role of becoming the gold standard, recombining with a resurgent Federer this past season to ensure that a top rivalry defined the game for a ninth straight season.
In the two most watched tennis events of the year gone by, both incidentally played in the same city of London, Wimbledon and the year-ending Masters, Djokovic and Federer had made the final. Djokovic won Wimbledon in five, Federer withdrew minutes before the last match of the season at the O2 Arena. “So when we met today, Roger and I, we decided to make up for the embarrassment of what had just happened,” Djokovic would say later. “So I really hope we did.”
They did, they really did. And when they did, it was spectacular. Points were constructed (Federer) and points were destroyed (Djokovic). And when no more points were left to make or break, there was a match-point.
This time Djokovic was serving, hoping to stay in the match. He crashed his first serve into the tape and the ball bounced over for a let. Only, in this league, there are no lets. And it took a moment and a weak return before Federer realised that. Djokovic crunched home his winner and yet another match-point had been saved. Saved at deuce no less, for there are no advantages in this league.
But the rules or what occurred after that (a five-minute tie-break followed by a super shoot-out) really didn’t matter. And when it all ended at 10:29pm, we in India were better off for having witnessed it.