In spite of its important sounding name, the ATP World Finals is far from the most significant tournament on the professional tennis circuit.
It tends to get overshadowed by the four majors and rightly so.
Nothing can compete with the tradition and spectacle brought on by the Grand Slams; not even a round-robin tournament that only admits the top eight players in the world.
But the 2012 final felt like a significant moment in the men’s game and merits attention by those who follow the sport.
Djokovic is currently ranked No. 1 in the world and without a doubt has been the best player on tour over the past two seasons. Considering his current form, it should never come as a surprise when he wins a match, even when his opponent is arguably the greatest player to ever pick up a racket.
But when examined within the context of this season, this particular win speaks volumes to Djokovic’s prowess and the current pecking order of the men’s game.
Federer’s resurgence during 2012 was the most significant storyline in tennis.
It started in the spring, when the then-30-year-old won the Masters 1000 tournaments at Indian Wells and Madrid, and peaked in the summer when Federer captured a record-tying seventh* Wimbledon title and regained the No. 1 ranking for the first time since 2010.
At the same time Federer was peaking, Djokovic was struggling.
He fell to the Swiss in the semifinals of Wimbledon—a loss that prevented him from defending his 2011 title—and was then upset by Juan Martin Del Potro in the semifinals of the Olympics.
Considering that Djokovic had made it clear that winning an Olympic medal was important, it was surprising that the Serb could not come up with the goods against Del Potro—a player he had owned in the past.
For a moment, it seemed as if the effort required to maintain a high level of play was finally taking a toll on Nole, and when Federer crushed him a few weeks later in the final of the Masters 1000 tournament in Cincinnati, it seemed clear that Fed truly was the man to beat on the 2012 ATP tour.
Things didn’t get any easier for either player at the U.S. Open.
Tomas Berdych upset Federer in the quarterfinals, while Djokovic lost a grueling final to perennial runner-up Andy Murray. But in spite of the licks they had each taken over the previous few weeks, the smart money was on a Djokovic-Federer final heading into the ATP World Tour Finals.
They had been the two best players on tour all season long, both of them had won one major and three Masters 1000 tournaments. Of their four meetings in 2012, each man had won twice.
Whoever emerged victorious could rightly lay claim to player of the year honors.
Even though the two had played each other evenly all year, Federer seemed slightly favored to prevail. The fast indoor courts at London’s O2 Arena favor his attacking style of play, which is part of the reason why he entered the match as the two-time defending champion.
When he won the first three games of the first set with a display of breathtaking shot-making that can only be described as vintage Federer, it looked as if the ATP Final would be a repeat of their match in Cincinnati.
At one point, Federer sent Djokovic tumbling to the ground with a well-disguised forehand, and for a moment, it truly looked as if the "Djoker" was down for the count.
But Djokovic refused to fold.
Rather than wilt under the barrage of big serves and monster forehands, the world’s No. 1 player righted the ship. He broke back to even the match and then broke again to gain the lead. Federer found a way to send the first set into a tiebreak, but Djokovic never blinked.
Though the crowd at the O2 was clearly in Federer’s camp and the Swiss was producing more highlight reel quality shots, Djokovic remained undaunted, winning the first set on a perfunctory inside-out forehand followed by a quick, yet confident glance to his box as if to say, “I’ve got this.”
The second set unfolded in a similar manner.
Federer looked crisp at the start.
His attacking style kept Djokovic on his heels, but once again the Serb found ways to counterattack and regain control of the match. He sealed the victory with an off-balance backhand passing shot—a difficult defense-to-offense type of play that he makes look like child’s play on a routine basis.
The shot seemed to surprise Federer, who had played well enough to win but still left the court without the champion’s trophy.
This is where the result becomes surprising and demonstrates why, in spite of the tour’s newfound parity, Djokovic is tennis’ top dog.
Even though Federer is clearly no longer the player he was from 2004-2007—when he won 11 of the 16 majors and redefined the phrase “athletic dominance”— I’ve long held the belief that when Fed plays his best tennis on courts that favor his style, no other player can touch him.
That’s what makes this loss to Djokovic so galling.
Anyone who watched the match knows that Federer was in top form. He did not lose because of his proclivity to go through stretches in which he seems distracted and disinterested, when he can’t find his first serve and is more likely to shank a forehand off his racket than hit a clean winner.
And the courts at the 02 Arena are perfectly suited to his game. They are fast and indoors—two conditions in which Federer thrives. Federer played great tennis and the conditions favored him.
Djokovic still won, and that’s significant.
What happens next is anyone’s guess.
Can Roger keep it up, or will Father Time start to break down the great champion? How good will Rafael Nadal be after taking almost half the season off? Was Andy Murray’s U.S. Open win an outlier or a sign of things to come?
Such questions can only be answered in time, but at this moment one thing is certain: Novak Djokovic is the man to beat, and if he continues to play this well, his rivals may not have the firepower to stop him.
*The article incorrectly stated that Federer had eight Wimbledon titles.