- Faster Courts
Federer is not the only player who has commented on the speed of the courts at the Australian Open this year. The first major of the year is known for being traditionally a slow hard court slam, and since the switch in 2008 from ReboundAce to Plexicushion, this only became truer. In 2016, the courts are playing more quickly than in recent years, conditions that favor the Swiss. Djokovic prefers slow hard courts that allow him an extra step or two to get to the ball. His defensive prowess makes him formidable under any conditions, however, slower courts would be more to his liking. Federer thrives when the courts are faster. Rod Laver recently noted, “Federer likes the ball at hip height” for his own shots, and prefers a surface that lets him hit through his opponents with well placed, fast paced ground strokes.
- Current Form
Federer and Djokovic have both been confident in 2016. The illness that hampered Federer during his opening tournament in Brisbane is firmly behind him. He has breezed through almost all of his matches – the lone exception being a spirited contest with Grigor Dimitrov – and looks as dangerous as he has for the last two years. Djokovic too has powered through the field with supreme confidence. Returning serve deeply, retrieving impossibly balls, and creating winners out of nowhere, Djokovic has been, if not at his best, a clearly dominant force at the Open. The two men had vastly different experiences in their respective 4th round matches. Djokovic hit 100 unforced errors, struggled with his form, and eked out a tough five set victory in four and a half hours against quality counterpuncher, Gilles Simon. Federer, against the similarly styled David Goffin, prevailed in three lopsided sets that collectively clocked in under 90 minutes. Both men are playing well, but unless Djokovic finds a way to raise his game, he could be in serious trouble.
- A Consistent Slam
Federer may have more titles at the U.S. Open and Wimbledon, but, before last year, he had reached the semifinals of the Australian Open every year since 2004. Since Federer’s domination of the men’s game came to an end in 2009, the Australian Open and Wimbledon have been his only grand slam triumphs. That history of success will help Federer feel good about his chances against Djokovic should they meet in the semis.
- Strong Swiss Serving
Federer’s ability to serve himself out of trouble was one of the distinguishing features of his 2015 season. Even compared to the top eight men who made it to the World Tour Finals, Federer’s serving stats are superior. It is not the speediest opening shot in the game, but the placement and spin that Federer can create with the same service motion make his serve hard to read, and highly effective. Alexander Dolgopolov found himself on the receiving end of a Federer serving masterclass similar to the one Federer turned in against Andy Murray in the 2015 Wimbledon semifinals. The Swiss’ ground game was not firing as he hoped during the first two sets, but 25 aces during the match helped him win 6-3, 7-5, 6-1. Djokovic is one of the best returners of all time, but on a day when Federer is hitting his spots, even the Serb will find himself in trouble.
- Ljubicic and the Backhand
David Goffin’s demolition in the 4th round was in part a function of how well Federer hit his one handed backhand. Long the weakest part of his game, relatively speaking, Federer, since switching rackets, has put in many hours honing this shot. During the Open so far, Federer’s backhand has looked better than ever. He has struck many clean winners off of his weaker wing including several vaporizing shots down the line. At Wimbledon in 2014, Djokovic himself said that when Federer is hitting backhand winners down the line, it is time to worry. The Swiss has also worked on his backhand return of serve. Instead of the flashy SABR he debuted during the American hard court swing last year, Federer’s new tactic is still to step well into the court, but instead of rushing the service line, he stops between the baseline and the service box and guides the ball away from his opponent, setting himself up to put away shoddily hit balls at the net. This tactic was on fine display during his match against Goffin. The addition of Ivan Ljubicic to Federer’s coaching team can only help with this. Ljubicic was known during his time on tour as the possessor of a powerful one handed backhand and a skilled tactician. Federer will surely look to profit from his new coach’s experience in both departments.
- Meeting in the Semifinal
If the previous elements have had to do with conditions and playing style, this last factor is purely psychological. In the last two grand slams Federer and Djokovic have met in the final. In both cases, Federer played his way through the field more confidently, and in both he fell to the Serb after a performance that was considerably tighter than those he had put in during previous rounds. Some of the dip in Federer’s play must be attributed to the skill Djokovic displayed in both matches, however, Federer’s level clearly dropped. With the pressure to win an 18th major mounting for the Swiss, meeting before the high intensity of a final will help Federer, and he will be one match fresher when he meets his younger opponent.
The Swiss and the Serb must win their quarterfinal matches before any of this comes to pass. Federer faces Tomas Berdych against whom he has struggled in grand slams, and Djokovic squares off against the man who felled him in the U.S. Open 2014 semifinal, Kei Nishikori. Federer and Djokovic will be the favorites in both matches and, if they meet in the semis, the stage is set for a blockbuster meeting between the two. Federer has never trailed his head to head against the Serb and, with the series tied between the two 22-22, he will be read to triumph in their 45th meeting. If they meet in the semis, Djokovic will be right to worry about his Swiss nemesis.