The dream final is set, and no, it’s not Marin Cilic against David Goffin. It’s better. A lot better! It’s the resumption of the Roger Federer v Novak Djokovic rivalry which the Serb leads by the slightest of margins, 23-22.
After a horrendous start the season, Djokovic has seen a resurgence this summer winning Wimbledon and then this week coming through four straight 3-set matches including today’s 6-4, 3-6, 6-3 victory over Cilic, the guy who beat him in the Queen’s final.
Boy, what an ugly match. Every time I watch Cilic I can’t help but wonder how in the world he won that US Open title. The guy has so much game, size, length and speed, but come crunch time he consistently gets tight and goes off the rails. And that’s what happened today.
Djokovic played OK but Cilic just falls apart at the wrong times and Djokovic took advantage coming up with the shots when it mattered the most, breaking Cilic to go up 5-3 and then serving it out.
“Yesterday at 4-3 in the third, today at 4-3 in the third, both times I made crucial breaks,” said Djokovic. “But, I wasn’t just closing my eyes and going for the shots. I was trying to tactically play smart and strategically play the certain shots that will put me in a better position than my opponent.
“When you play guys like Cilic and Raonic, you have to be lucky to anticipate their serve, try to block it, try to put it in play, and again, develop a point in a way which will allow you to win it.
“Today I made a passing shot down the line, which was quite awesome, and I was lucky to hit the line. That’s what happens. I mean, that one point, one shot, decided a winner of the match today. That’s how close it was. It was similar to yesterday’s match, so not much has really separated us.”
Following a super-busy Friday and all the rain, I guess both guys were a little mentally fried. And the heat maybe hit the guys for the first time all week.
“It was a big battle, definitely tough conditions: very hot, very humid, very different than all the matches that I have played here this week,” said Cilic. “It wasn’t easy to adjust in that from the beginning of the match. But just an amazing performance by him. In those critical points he lifted his level in those moments, and that earned him the victory.
“I feel with my tennis that it’s on a good level. These two weeks have helped me to position myself well to prepare really well. I had tough matches here this week and last week.”
In the evening, Federer showed a little of his age and post-Friday fatigue looking a little sluggish early against a hot-serving David Goffin who beat the Swiss in the semifinals of the ATP Finals in November. But Federer loosened up his serve as the first set went on, then rolled in the breaker to take the opener.
Goffin received some treatment on his right shoulder at the end of the first, then minutes later out of the blue the two were shaking hands as Goffin retired down 7-6(3), 1-1 serving 40-30.
It came as a shock to just about everyone watching.
“It didn’t make sense to continue,” said Goffin. “I was serving 100 miles per hour first serve and I felt my arm and my shoulder. After I lost the first set, I had to serve two more sets to win the match, so it didn’t make sense to continue.
“But overall I was feeling great. I was moving well. I was feeling my forehand really well. So on the baseline I was feeling good. It was a different kind of serve because I was serving differently because of the speed of my ball, and it would have been tough to win.”
So a much-needed quick night for Federer who seemed to be getting into gear as the match went on.
“So I was just happy how I was able to lift my game up throughout the set, and then also in the breaker, I played a good breaker, so I was actually very happy.”
And that means the final we’ve been waiting for after Rafael Nadal pulled it is set.
Roger Federer v Novak Djokovic
Djokovic leads 23-22 and he’s had the better of Federer in recent meetings, but they haven’t played since the Australian Open in 2016 and most importantly, in the Cincinnati final Federer is 3-0 against the Serb. Three wins and all in straight sets!
Plus, Federer is 7-0 in the Cincinnati final while Djokovic is 0-5. And to me, those final records mean more than their recent head-to-head which is pretty even anyway.
“I think what’s nice about this is that it’s fresh,” Federer said of the long gap in playing Djokovic. “It’s not like we have played in the last few weeks and everybody knows what to expect.”
Federer also loves the Cincinnati court. It plays quick, plays hot and with his serve and attacking mindset, it’s no wonder he’s by far the title leader there and hasn’t dropped serve since the 3-set 2014 final against David Ferrer.
“I just think in general here in Cincinnati you’ve got to win the big points,” said Federer. “There are not that many opportunities, especially if you protect your serve well. Everything goes very quickly. You can’t play the rallies like you normally would like to. You’re playing very reactive on the return and active on your own serve.”
So the finals record and the court speed give the advantage to Federer. I also give the Swiss the edge in level of play. Djokovic just hasn’t looked in tune this week. He’s winning, but like he did today, winning ugly.
Grigor Dimitrov had a set and a break lead and Milos Raonic also had Djokovic on the ropes. But credit to Novak, he came through. I just think if Federer gets such a chance, he’ll finish the deal winning those big points, and I think that’s what happens tomorrow.
That said, Djokovic is younger, he should be the better player – he just won Wimbledon – and he’s got the hunger and the motivation of trying to win his first and make history. He should win this match!
“I mean, it’s a final for me and the sixth time that I’ll try to win the title,” said Djokovic. “Obviously this time I’m hoping that I can get my hands on the trophy. I will give my best. History is also on the line and I’m aware of that and that motivates me even more.”
And we saw Roger lose matches to Kevin Anderson, Thanasi Kokkinakis and even the Juan Martin Del Potro loss at Indian Wells was a surprise. Also Borna Coric on the grass.
And this week, let’s be honest Federer’s had a great draw, hardly been affected by the rain (as far as mid-match delays and waiting) while Djokovic beat two former Cincinnati champions and a 3-time Masters finalist in Raonic.
But, listening to Federer at the ESPN desk after the match tonight, I just think he doesn’t want to lose to Novak and he especially doesn’t want to be the guy to give Novak a first Cincinnati title making him the first player in history to have all nine Masters. So I’m going 7-0 > 0-5.
The Pick: Federer in two
Like I said, this court sets up better for Roger. He’s also played better this week, granted against lesser competition. But Djokovic has looked ragged and to beat Roger he’ll have to play his best tennis of the week. And perhaps that will happen.
ESPN2 will have the men’s final live at 4pm ET after the women’s final between Simona Halep and Kiki Bertens at 2pm.
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