After 11 months of tennis on six continents, there’s one match left in the last tournament of the season. Other than the Davis Cup final next weekend, this is it for official tennis in 2015.
This title match in London has a familiar and fitting matchup to sum up the year, as Novak Djokovic and Roger Federer will face each other yet again. It’s their eighth clash since February, and second this week after Federer scored a straight set win over a moderately interested Djokovic, who coasted through the group stage.
Once the semifinals came around, Djokovic dialed it up a bit, defeating a resurgent Rafael Nadal (3-0 in the round robin stage), 6-3, 6-3. Meanwhile, Federer predictably dispatched countryman Stan Wawrinka, who had previously eliminated Andy Murray in a winner-take-all round robin match to prevent a Big Four reunion.
For the first time this year (other than their relatively meaningless group stage match), this a true toss-up. Djokovic was the favorite at Wimbledon and the U.S. Open due to the best-of-five format that puts the 34 year old Federer at a disadvantage, while the slower court speeds in Indian Wells and Rome also tilted the scales in the World No. 1’s favor. As for Federer, he took advantage of the slick courts in Dubai and Djokovic’s perplexing, longstanding mental demons in Cincinnati to claim those meetings.
Perhaps the most intriguing part of this matchup is how the mental edge can shift in an instant. Djokovic takes Federer out of his typical comfort zone, forcing him to press and go for dangerously thin margins that he otherwise wouldn’t, but many a time, Federer finds a way to break out of nowhere and steal a 7-5 set.
The stakes? Djokovic is aiming for his fourth WTF title in a row, and fifth overall. Federer already has the record, having lifted the trophy on six occasions. This isn’t quite a legacy-building event, but Djokovic needs this to have a chance at finishing with the most year end championships. Djokovic could also revert the head-to-head record back to even after Federer’s win on Tuesday nudged him out front, 22-21.
As always, maintaining first serve percentage and actually converting break points are the keys for Federer. First strike tennis is also critical in preventing Djokovic from resetting rallies by attacking the Federer backhand. As for Djokovic, his lobs, which have been on fire this week, could play a pivotal role when Federer attacks the net. The smart money is on Djokovic simply because he’s the best player on the planet, and at his apex, he has a higher gear to hit.
The pick: Djokovic in 3.