DUBAI, United Arab Emirates -- It was a match between familiar faces as top-seeded Novak Djokovic and Roger Federer met for the 32nd time in their career, this time at the Dubai Duty Free Championships.
Federer came from behind for a 3-6, 6-3, 6-2 win and will be playing on Saturday for his sixth Dubai.
This rivalry is the seventh-most-contested matchup in the Open era, and Federer came into the ring -- er, the court -- with a 16-15 edge. Interestingly, they were in a dead heat on wins on hard-court surfaces at 12-12 before this semifinal broke that tie in Federer’s favor.
Coming into the match, Djokovic had won three straight over Fed, and nine of the last 12 dating back to the 2011 Australian Open semifinals. Djokovic twice had three consecutive wins over Federer during that span but had not beaten him four matches in a row, and that streak remains intact.
So what did we learn on Friday? Here are five things:
1. Federer never gives up: One trait Federer prides himself on is never giving up. Whether he’s leading or trailing, he keeps on going, believing if he hangs in long enough he’ll find an way to get back in the match. That’s exactly how he played it against Djokovic. Fed watched the first set go by fairly easily, surrendering his first service game in the match to give Djokovic an early 2-0 lead. But Federer dug in his heels after that, and after he broke Djokovic’s serve in the sixth game of the second set, the momentum shifted.
He solidified that shift when he broke Djokovic’s serve in the opening game of the third and added a bonus break in the fifth game. When Federer went jogging out to his side of the court with a 5-1 lead and Djokovic waiting to serve, he was sending a clear message: Even at 32, he's still spry and able to turn a match around against a high-quality player.
2. The Federer-Edberg partnership is working: Federer appears to be listening to the advice part-time coach Stefan Edberg is giving. That message is likely a strong suggestion that Federer needs to establish a better relationship with the net. Federer spoke a number of times this week about interesting conversations with his new mentor.
Edberg must be promoting the benefits of the serve-and-volley, as well as the best way to transition from a defensive position to an offensive one. Fed can volley -- and volley well -- but too often spends time hanging back behind the baseline. Why work so hard if you don’t have to? And at age 32, playing catch-up is probably not the best strategy. Once Federer started to approach and volley in the match he had the advantage and forced Djokovic into a more defensive position. It’s a strategy Federer should stay with to help him remain relevant. (On a side note, Edberg is not here in Dubai this week.)
3. Djokovic failed to adjust: Djokovic was clearly comfortable when Federer offered him the early lead. He likes to be a front-runner, which he was throughout the first set. But once Federer rebounded in the second set, Djokovic didn’t change his game to counter the strategy changes Federer made. Djokovic hired Boris Becker with the hope Becker can help him mentally close out matches he should win, and this semifinal match against Federer was exactly the type of match Djokovic had in mind. Djoker had the early edge and gave it away. Maybe Djokovic should try to steal some Becker tips on being aggressive, being comfortable coming to net and when at the net. It might be a better use of Becker’s salary and time.
4. Tennis and home life are meshing for Fed: Federer has made a habit of separating his home life mode from his tennis life, whether here in Dubai (where he maintains an apartment) or at home in Switzerland, when playing a tournament he normally checks into a hotel and lives a tournament lifestyle. He spoke earlier in the week about it helping him to put his game face on.
This time around, however, he’s done something unusual by staying at his own place, saying his twin daughters seemed settled at home and he didn’t want to disrupt that by packing up and pulling into the hotel. While many players are addicted to routine -- hello, Rafael Nadal -- Federer seems to be able to adapt himself to new situations, something that fatherhood probably has had a hand in. With a new child on the way, that can only be a continued plus.
5. Dubai belongs to Federer: Any way you look at it, both Federer and Djokovic enjoy playing here at Dubai. Federer’s won this title five times and Djokovic has been champion four times, including just last year. They came into the match having played in Dubai twice before to a split decision: Federer won their quarterfinal outing in 2007, while Djokovic won their meeting in the 2011 final. Their individual records in Dubai: 41-5 for Federer, 30-4 for Djokovic.
Still, Dubai remains Federer's domain. He spends a lot of time living in the city, trains here often, and the fans who sometimes run into the Federer family in local restaurants were clearly in his corner in this matchup with their constant “Roger, Roger, Roger” chants. There’s nothing like having a stadium in your corner. There were Djokovic fans, of course, but Federer was the clear favorite, and that helped him find the winning side.