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What does Roger Federer need to do to beat Novak Djokovic?

Roger Federer Roger Federer has not beaten Novak Djokovic at a major since 2012 (PA)

January 28, 2020

Twenty majors versus 16 majors. Six Australian Open titles versus seven Australian Open titles. The 2018 Australian Open champion versus the 2019 Australian Open champion. If we wanted to break down the upcoming matchup between Roger Federer and Novak Djokovic according to records, we could be here for a while yet.

For all the storied history and adulation Federer’s tussles with Rafael Nadal receive from the public, it is his battles with Djokovic that have arguably brought out the best from Federer’s Wilson racket. Most of their 49 matches have been close, and none closer than their last Grand Slam meeting when Djokovic edged a remarkable Wimbledon final on that historic Sunday in sport.

Yet, for the narrow edge Djokovic holds in the overall head to head with Federer (26-23), he has not lost to Federer at a Grand Slam since Wimbledon in 2012. Since that semi-final, they have played five times at a major and all five occasions have seen the Serbian leave the court victorious and leave an indelible mark on everyone who watched the match.

As their 50th meeting awaits in Melbourne on Thursday, and with Federer having survived a monumental contest in his quarter-final with Tennys Sandgren, Djokovic is likely to be the clear favourite to win and progress to another final. But what does Federer need to figure out to be the first person to defeat Djokovic at an Australian Open semi-final?

The first thing to say is that despite all his greatness and immense skill, it is unlikely that Federer will be at 100% not only because of his age, but also the fact that against Sandgren he felt pain in his groin and had to have a medical timeout. But if we assume he is as ready as he can be, there are still huge doubts whether he can topple Djokovic in Australia.

The first question mark will be about Federer’s game plan against Djokovic. At Wimbledon in 2015, Federer played an incredible match against Andy Murray in the semi-final to rekindle memories of the thrashing he gave Andy Roddick at the 2007 Australian Open semi-final. Everyone was expectant that if he could perform like that in such a huge match, he could do it in a few days against Djokovic in the final. But it just seemed a step too far.

It was not necessarily Djokovic’s undeniable brilliance, like he would show against Federer in the following year’s Australian Open semi-final, but Federer seemed to go for too much on his serve and groundstrokes. He made 60 unforced errors that day, compared to Djokovic’s 36. He is always going to make more unforced errors, because he will hit more winners too but it was to an extent from which he could not win the match.

In all the Grand Slam match ups between the two, Federer has hit 759 unforced errors all together compared to Djokovic’s 611. One thing that Djokovic seems to do better than anyone else is to get unforced errors from the hallowed Federer forehand. Not since the 2011 French Open semi-final has Federer made less forehand unforced errors than backhand unforced errors against Djokovic in a Grand Slam match.

Federer would often have this problem against Nadal between the years of 2008 and 2014, where he would play brilliantly in the lead up to the match, and get into great positions in the match, but his racket would let him down at the crucial moment. He has been able to change that round because Nadal has a distinct game style and plan against Federer, and the Swiss could prepare for that by going over his backhand more and taking the attack to the Spaniard.

But against Djokovic there still seems to be some haziness as to what exactly he needs to do, apart from be aggressive in his mindset. This is arguably the most important factor that Federer will need to battle against Djokovic on Thursday.

If we take a closer look at their matches at the Australian Open, Djokovic leads 3-1 in the head to head. The game style from Federer, like on most occasions, has been to take the attack to Djokovic and particularly to go to the net. In the four matches they have played, he has won almost 64% of all the points at net. Djokovic is not thought of as an aggressive player, but he has won 65% of all the points he has played at net.

The reason for this very slight edge is the decision making Djokovic shows as to when he feels he can come to net. We all love to see an outstanding stretch volley winner, but players do not want to have to make these types of winners all the time. Look at a highlights reel of Djokovic and Federer matches at the Australian Open, you will see often Federer having made difficult volleys regularly. But what they do not show is the errors Federer made when approaching the net, allowing an easy pass for Djokovic or being in no man’s land.

This is another key thing Federer will have to deal against Djokovic, as to when he should approach the net, and in what type of position he should be in on the court. If he does not think this through, it could be another case of target practice for Djokovic against Federer.

In addition to the unforced errors and mistakes that Djokovic forces Federer to make, there is also the scar tissue Djokovic has inflicted on the Swiss. At key moments in matches, such as the miracle forehand Djokovic hit in the 2011 US Open semi-final to save match point, Djokovic has proved unbreakable for Federer. The mind at these key points looks somewhat frazzled for Federer, but absolutely clear for Djokovic.

These two have produced magical moments on court against each other time and again, and will likely do again on Thursday. But Federer will really have to produce a performance for the ages, even more than he showed against Djokovic at Wimbledon last year, to have any chance of winning against the defending champion and reach an eighth Australian Open final.