WHEN Novak Djokovic grows up, he wants to be Roger Federer. He is the world No.1, the reigning Wimbledon and Australian Open champion and the holder of eight Grand Slam titles but it is still not enough. It is nowhere near enough.
Even Federer, that most self-confident of champions, one well aware of his position at the top of the legends list in his sport, happily admits that Djokovic has been the man to beat for the past couple of years, he is the best there is in the game. Federer concedes bragging rights there. But it is still not enough for Djokovic.
The world No.1 wants to be loved. He wants to be respected. He wants to feel the adulation that is heaped upon the mighty Swiss master. He is nine major trophies shy of Federer’s record tally but he has beaten the living legend time and again in recent years. Their rivalry looks evenly balanced at 20-19 in Federer’s favour, but in the past three years, Djokovic has won eight of their last 12 meetings, including the Wimbledon final last year. And still he does not get the respect and the affection that falls on Federer wherever he goes.
Djokovic’s obsession with winning the French Open and completing his career Grand Slam is proof positive of his need for recognition: Federer has a career Grand Slam, Rafael Nadal has one. If he can complete one, he, too, will be regarded in the same way, he, too, will be one of the all-time greats of the game. But Stan Wawrinka destroyed that dream five weeks ago.
The Serb’s comeback from that devastating defeat has been impressive, but there are signs that he is not his usual, assertive, assured best. In his first round against Philipp Kohlschreiber – a potential banana skin if ever there was one – he talked of keeping his “composure”. When he dismissed the veteran Jarkko Nieminen in the second round, he was pleased that he “was able to be calm”. But when Kevin Anderson almost had him in the fourth round, Djokovic exploded.
Staring wild-eyed at his box as the crowd backed the underdog and the big South African kept serving bombs in the fifth set, he screamed at a ball girl in frustration. This was not supposed to be happening to the best player in the world; he was not supposed to lose to the world No.14 on No.1 Court. Djokovic wants this title so badly he can taste it.
Standing calmly and serenely on the other side of the net today will be the great Federer. At the age of 33, he produced what he regarded as one of the finest matches of his career to beat Andy Murray on Friday; he is playing at his absolute peak and he has the crowd behind him. He could not be happier as he eyes up his 18th Grand Slam title and his eighth Wimbledon trophy – he is in his element and the Centre Court crowd are beside themselves to see the greatest player of all time playing like the legend he has created for himself.
“I think the fans know why I’m playing,” Federer said, basking in the warm afterglow of his victory against Murray. “At the end of the day, I enjoy it. I work hard in the practice. In a match like this [against Murray], I can have a great performance. And clearly it’s an amazing feeling when you come back from the match and everybody’s so happy for you. When I was walking back, there was applause all the way to the locker room.
“So I just feel overall that people are very happy for me, and at the same time I’m very pleased how well I’m playing. But knowing that it’s just a semi-final match, it’s obviously a huge one, a big one against Andy here, I need to keep it up for one more match to really make it the perfect couple of weeks.”
If only Djokovic could elicit that sort of response. They are fair, the Centre Court brigade, but they have their firm favourites and if Murray cannot be the champion this year, Federer is their next choice. And if Federer can serve the way he served against the Scot, it is hard to see how Djokovic can beat him.
The dynamics of the match will be much the same as they were on Friday. Djokovic and Murray play the same sort of game – counter punchers who can turn defence into attack in an instant, brilliant return game players, solid first serves, enormous strength and stamina, fantastic defenders – except that Djokovic’s second serve is better.
Against that, Federer will presumably play as he did in the semi-final. He will not want to be drawn into long baseline rallies, he will pick and mix his serve (sometimes cracking it, sometimes spinning it but always hitting his target with pinpoint accuracy) and he will construct his points to allow himself the opportunity to attack the net. The serve out wide and the sprint forward to put away the volley winner is a tried and tested way of hurting the opposition.
But it all depends on how well Federer serves.
Djokovic beat Federer here last year in a five-set thriller but Federer is playing better now than he was then. If he can continue that same fluid, graceful but utterly ruthless form that took Murray apart two days ago, Djokovic may have his heart broken by a Swiss for the second time in just over a month.
Djokovic may want to be the next Roger Federer but for the moment, there is no job vacancy. Federer is staying put.