A tale of two extremes

When in July 2016 Roger Federer decided to sit out the rest of the season for the sake of nursing his surgically repaired left knee, little did he know that one of the most trying periods of his career would become the precursor to an Indian Summer that is still yet to come to an end. What has occurred, and is occurring, can only be described as a different breed of resurgence; a revivification so stirring it has sparked claims—arguably of the tendentious and sensationalist variety—that Federer has been playing better over the last year than at any other point during his career. To some, it appears as though he is aging in reverse.

These sentiments, emanating everywhere from the mouth of Brad Gilbert to the writings of Scoop Malinowski, come straight from left field but aren’t grounded entirely in irrationality. By abandoning the 2016 season midway through its course and winning the Australian Open mere weeks after he returned last January, Federer etched into history the touchstone of all tennis comebacks. Amazingly, more unfathomable success was to come: Federer took home half of last year’s hard court Masters 1000 trophies, which he supplemented with two titles on grass including a record eighth Wimbledon. And then, shortly after embarking on his 21st season as a tennis professional, he won the Australian Open all over again. Rhetorical exaggerations aside, it bears repeating that even when held up against his 2004-2007 zenith, what Federer accomplished between the first month of 2017 and now is startlingly special.

Without question, the journey from the treatment table to Grand Slam glory won’t be as rippleless for most players on the comeback trail as it was for Federer twelve months back. Novak Djokovic found that out the hard way when he ran up against a newly upgraded version of Hyeon Chung in the fourth round of the 2018 Australian Open, a Chung far superior to the one Djokovic mauled in under two hours en route to his sixth Australian Open title a couple of years ago. Djokovic, who until last Monday was thought to be the only player with a vaguely realistic chance of following in Federer’s footsteps, fell well short of emulating his Swiss rival’s electrifying 2017 victory at the “Happy Slam.” But why is that? It’s a question that doesn’t instantly admit of a clear-cut answer, though a comparison between the two comebacks might yield a workable explanation.

There are common threads running through the circumstances that prompted Djokovic and Federer to take long-term layoffs exactly a year apart from each other (July 26th being the ill-fated day). As the tennis gods would have it, disheartening defeats at Wimbledon—Federer’s to Milos Raonic in a five-set semi-final, Djokovic’s via retirement when he was already a set and a break adrift in his quarter-final against Tomas Berdych—proved to be the final straw for the two great champions. Furthermore, those losses underscored the mental afflictions that had haunted both Federer and Djokovic in 2016 and 2017, respectively. Djokovic was the instigator of Federer’s late-career Grand Slam demons, having beaten him in the 2014 and 2015 Wimbledon finals, in addition to blocking his path to a sixth US Open crown in 2010, 2011 and 2015. Federer profited immensely from exorcising the lacerating memories of those near-misses, which allowed him to start afresh mentally after his prolonged break.

The mental obstacles Djokovic currently faces are in some sense of a different nature to, and more severe than, those overcame by Federer. Although in Stan Wawrinka he has a nemesis capable of consistently overwhelming him in best-of-five set matches, the nosedive in Djokovic’s fortunes can be chalked up to the mental fatigue accumulated through winning almost everything in sight from October 2014 to June 2016 as much as anything. In 2017 he needed nothing more than to press the reset button on his career and avoid slipping further into the vortex of self-doubt that engulfed him after his dramatic fall from the top of the ATP tree.

Simply put, Djokovic has been a victim of his own success. He was always going to be in for a harder landing than Federer upon rejoining the tour, as the problems engendered by his rampant dominance run a lot deeper into his psyche. Federer, at 36 years of age, had a lot more to lose temporally by forgoing nearly half a year of competitive tennis, but in psychological terms, disappointment is a lesser setback to recover from than burnout. Going by what I have seen from Djokovic so far in 2018, it looks as if he will be grappling with the emotional fallout of his decline for a while longer. All this points to the possibility that the 30-year-old Serb may never regain the mental edge over the field he once had, which doesn’t bode well for him even if his elbow eventually heals.

Noticeable differences in playing style also account for the disparity between what Federer and Djokovic achieved in their respective comeback slams. As much as we all love to wax lyrical about the visual appeal of Federer’s loose-limbed strokes, supernal footwork and improvisational genius, it’s important to realize what his efficient technique and tactical nous translate to from a non-aesthetic perspective.

Most importantly, the depth of Federer’s toolkit enables him to play points that don’t take a heavy toll on the body. He conserves his energy by doing all of the following: employing infinitely repeatable spot serving patterns, shortening baseline rallies by means of shrewd shot selection, taking time away from the opposing player with aggressive court positioning (making them do all the running), and approaching the net to consistently good effect. Given the style of play he has developed to boost his longevity, adding offensive heft to his backhand and finally building a trustful relationship with his enlarged Pro Staff frame were the keys to unlocking the slam-winning form that lay dormant for so many years. In retrospect, it’s easy to see how everything came together for Federer in 2017; nonetheless, it goes without saying that he hit his stride far sooner than the great majority of the tennis world had expected him to.

Djokovic, let’s not forget, is eminently capable of audacious aggression from the back of the court when imbued with the world-on-a-string confidence that once coursed through his veins. By and large, however, the world No.13 deals in the currency of high-percentage tennis; Djokovic is inclined to rally patiently until he works an opening, then inject pace into his shots knowing that he has substantially raised the likelihood of hitting a winner or extracting a short ball. That modus operandi has worked in the past—223 weeks at No.1, 30 Masters 1000 titles and 12 majors don’t lie—but unlike Federer’s it reduces the chances of him being able to hold his own against top-flight opposition with very little match play under his belt.

If this analysis makes Djokovic’s situation sound all rather moribund, don’t assume that I am putting pen to paper on his career obituary just yet. It is not as if Djokovic showed no signs of life in Melbourne, so it is far too soon to sound the death knell for his future as a slam contender. He trounced Donald Young in a manner befitting of his old self, displayed illimitable endurance to fight past Gael Monfils in sweltering temperatures, and took down Albert Ramos Viñolas with some fuel to spare. Knocking three seasoned campaigners out of the draw constituted a good week’s work for Djokovic, especially considering the sorry state of his serve.

To have expected him to surmount the challenge posed by Chung, on the other hand, was just too much, too soon for a player currently on the mend. For that, full credit must go to the Korean youngster. As commentators and fans alike have remarked, Chung passes for a convincing Djokovic doppelgänger if ever there was one. Feet adhered to the baseline as if by superglue, he outflanked his idol through the skilful manipulation of court geometry, a penchant for hitting incredibly powerful shots on the dead run, and sheer tenacity—a quality sorely lacking in many of the players from his generation.

Champion meets challenger: Last time these two played, Djokovic was on top of the world

Djokovic’s tennis ended up looking a bit rudderless and one-dimensional by the end of the third set tiebreak, an issue he might’ve prevented by changing tack from time to time. After all, who better to find an antidote to a Djokovic-esque game than… Djokovic himself? It would only involve a pinch of lateral thinking. That said, I struggle to imagine what more he could have done. Chung 2.0 is a hard-nosed, well-oiled machine that is going places—his most recent destination an Australian Open semi-final, from which he was booted out prematurely in equal part by unforgiving foot blisters and Federer’s ability to strike a tennis ball with unerring precision. Since it took the collective might of excruciating pain and a guy called Roger Federer to solve the Chung riddle this time around, I suppose we ought to cut Djokovic some slack.