Novak Djokovic ended a brilliant 2012 with a stunning comeback against Roger Federer to win the season-ending ATP World Tour Finals in London, defeating the world No. 2 7-6 (6), 7-5 in a match that lasted almost two-and-a-half hours.
From the early exchanges, the momentum seemed to be with Federer, who got off to a flying start, breaking Djokovic to lead 3-0 in less than 15 minutes. Anyone watching who may have thought that the first set was done at that point would not have been entirely wrong—only a few weeks ago, prior to the U.S. Open, Djokovic lost the first set of the Cincinnati Masters 1000 final 6-0 in just 20 minutes.
Djokovic's slow starts have been a feature of his game in 2012. The interesting thing is that being behind didn't seem to bother him. Receiving at 3-1, after holding his serve for the first time in the match, Djokovic made a quick tactical switch. Much like Nadal, he began to attack Federer's backhand to open the forehand.
More importantly though, he changed the pattern of play that had been favoring Federer. He kept Federer unsettled on the ad court (the left side of the court) through attacking the deuce court (the right side of the court) with his flat backhand from the ad court on his side.
This small change wrestled the match from Federer and remained a feature of Djokovic's game until the last point of the match when he successfully laced a backhand to the deuce court as Federer favored the ad court.
Breaking down the stats: of the 36 errors Federer made on his forehand, 80 percent (29) came in the deuce court and only 20 percent (7) in the ad court. So, what's the point? Federer favors his backhand side and likes to hit forehands from that area of the court. So, faced with an opponent who was threatening to attack his forehand side the more he camped at the backhand side, the Swiss had to make a sacrifice in order to defend.
As such, the efficacy of Federer's game dropped as he was shifted from his area of strength to one of relative weakness, And this, coupled with being dragged to and fro from left to right, led to an increased likelihood of Federer, also weakened by the running, making the error. It was a triple whammy.
This brings us to the question: If Djokovic was doing this much to hurt Federer, what was Federer doing to hurt him back?
Which brings us to the more pertinent question: How do you hurt Djokovic? Is the game plan simply as archaic as physically outlasting him? Really? Isn't there enough guile out there for something easier and perhaps more pleasing to the eye (not to say that the rallies aren't pleasing to the eye)?
What are the lessons and significance of Djokovic's win?
1. I once said that Djokovic's biggest weapon was his opportunism. I would revise that. I won't go as far as completing redacting that statement—I think it does play a role in his game, as in most people's games—but I will add that the more Djokovic has grown as a player, the more his opportunism has become a product of patient, conscious confidence as opposed to his little-thought-through, may-as-well attitude of the past.
2. I know it seems like every time Federer loses, there are calls that he is finished and his career is over. Well, he isn't finished and his career isn't over, but it is a distinct possibility that grass is now the only domain where he may still be considered to have a stronghold.
3. While Andy Murray's Olympic gold medal and U.S. Open title ended the discussion about whether he was a genuine contender for the biggest events, his performance at the World Tour Finals did nothing to change my view that heading into a Grand Slam event, both Djokovic and Federer and maybe even Nadal would still be considered favorites ahead of him.
4. Djokovic's double success at the World Tour Finals, coupled with Federer's six titles, highlights, in my view, Nadal's need for a World Tour Final title.
1. Despite all four of the Big Four winning a slam this year, Djokovic ends the year with a huge points gap between first and second in the rankings.
2. Having won two World Tour Finals and four Tennis Masters Cups, this loss is only Federer's second in the final of these season-ending championships. That speaks for itself.