Roger Wary Of The 'Real Novak'
Since lifting his eighth unique ATP World Tour Masters 1000 trophy at the 2013 Rolex Monte-Carlo Masters, Novak Djokovic has stood one title away from becoming the first man to achieve the Career Golden Masters. For the second time since that victory in the Principality, the 31-year-old is just one win away from achieving that feat by winning the Western & Southern Open. But, as was the case in 2015, Roger Federer stands in the way.
Three years ago, Federer defeated Djokovic for the third time in Cincinnati's championship match (also 2009, 2012) without dropping a set to claim the title. The seven-time champion will be aiming to extend his unbeaten record in Cincinnati finals by winning his 15th consecutive match at the Ohio-based event.
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Federer vs. Djokovic
Despite meeting on 45 occasions in their FedEx ATP Head2Head series (Djokovic leads 23-22), the great rivals will face off for the first time in 31 months on Sunday. And that has Federer excited.
"What's nice about this, it's like fresh," Federer said. "It's not like we have played in the last few weeks and everybody knows what to expect. A lot has happened since [our last meeting] with injuries both of us have been fighting, and we both came back strong again."
In their last meeting at the 2016 Australian Open, Djokovic defeated Federer in four sets to reach his sixth final at the opening Grand Slam of the season.And while it will present challenges for the Swiss in today's final, he is happy to see his great rival back from an elbow injury and playing some of his best tennis like when they met 2 1/2 years ago in Melbourne.
"When they asked me in Indian Wells and Miami to judge Novak, I was, like, It's not real Novak. He was just coming back, and he came back too soon. Same at the Australian Open. That one wasn't quite the 100% Novak we know he can be.
"Look what happened after the French. Everything turned. He could have won Queen's, should have won Queen's, maybe. Ends up winning Wimbledon and he's back in another final. It looks like he hasn't missed any tennis at all over the last few years."
Both men will be keen to end their relative title droughts at Masters 1000 level. Djokovic last achieved success at the level two years ago at the Rogers Cup, while Federer's most recent triumph came at the 2017 Rolex Shanghai Masters. Djokovic (30) and Federer (27) will also be eager to narrow the gap on all-time Masters 1000 title record holder Nadal, who won his 33rd title at the level last week in Toronto.
Bidding to win his 70th tour-level trophy, Djokovic will need to find his best level in the championship match. The five-time runner-up is yet to win a set in a Cincinnati final. Only three men have lost five or more finals at a tour-level event without winning the title, with Andy Murray and Nadal both sharing the same record at the Australian Open and Miami Open presented by Itaú, respectively.
Since his arrival at the Internazionali BNL d'Italia in May, Djokovic has clinched victory in 26 of his 30 tour-level matches. But the Wimbledon champion has been pushed all the way in Cincinnati. After a straight-sets win over Steve Johnson in the first round, Djokovic has needed deciding sets in each of his four encounters against Adrian Mannarino, Grigor Dimitrov, Milos Raonic and Marin Cilic.
Competing for the first time since his quarter-final exit to Kevin Anderson at Wimbledon, Federer has continually impressed on serve this week. The 37-year-old has held each of his 43 service games en route to the final, facing only five break points along the way.
But Federer has been significantly tested. The 98-time tour-level titlist came to within two points of defeat at 6-7(2), 6-6 (6/6) against countryman Stan Wawrinka in the quarter-finals before clinching victory in three sets. Four of Federer's nine sets this week have required tie-breaks.
With title runs in his two most recent appearances in 2014 and 2015, Federer's last loss at this event came in 2013 to eventual champion Nadal at the quarter-final stage. Federer, who began his career with a 1-4 record in Cincinnati, has lost just four of his most recent 49 matches at the Lindner Family Tennis Center.
Can Djokovic finally complete his set of Masters 1000 trophies or will Federer, once again, deny Djokovic in the championship match to extend his unbeaten record in Cincinnati finals?