For some time, the delineation of Roger Federer’s glory years and his past-his-prime existence has been blurred. Two years ago, we couldn’t help but evoke the word “retire” with any mention of Federer’s name. And last year, of course, was his renaissance, in which he stormed back to the No. 2 ranking and played youthful tennis throughout the season.
It’s still too early in 2015 to figure out which end of the seesaw Federer, 33, will fall toward. In Australia, he was floored in four sets by journeyman Andreas Seppi in the third round, but more disconcerting were Federer’s thoughts afterward when he admitted his body wasn’t ready to compete. It sounded remarkably similar to the words you’d expect from an aging tennis player.
But we all know by now that Roger Federer isn’t your average aging 33-year-old. In Dubai, Federer is once again playing like that spry, elite tennis player who takes up copious real estate in the record books. Federer is in the final after a hasty straight-sets thumping of Borna Coric on Friday.
The 17-time Slam champ’s opponent? You may have heard of him. World No. 1 Novak Djokovic dug in to hold off a game Tomas Berdych in three sets. So, yes, we have the top two players ready to go at it again -- this time in the final of the Dubai Championships.
A few observations heading into the finale:
• Biologically, Federer could be Coric’s father, but you wouldn’t have known that by the way the Swiss scurried around the court Friday. Federer, 15 years his opponent’s senior, channeled his inner Edberg with aplomb, attacking the net and ending points before Coric could sink his teeth into the rally. Federer won nine of 13 points at net. This might not seem like many approaches, but given that the 6-2, 6-1 Federer victory lasted all of 56 minutes, it’s pretty significant.
• Djokovic bageled Berdych in the opening set of the semifinal. But for whatever reason, the Serb’s caffeine wore off and Berdych came back from a break down to snare the second set. Djokovic eventually prevailed 6-0, 5-7, 6-4, but what seemed like a routine win suddenly devolved into an unexpected tussle, with the Czech ending points with razor-sharp groundies and a no-fear approach. The one overarching takeaway: Djokovic won 70 percent of the points in rallies that lasted at least nine shots. That means Federer is going to have to take the same approach as he did against Coric: Rush the net and eliminate any chance Djokovic has to get his legs into a rhythm.
• Federer and Djokovic have won the Dubai Championships a combined 10 times, an incredible run of dominance from both players. Federer has six titles there, including a trophy-winning run last year, where he beat -- you guessed it -- Djokovic in the semifinals and Berdych in the final. The Serb owns four titles in Dubai. Believe it or not, though, despite their past successes, this will be only the second time they’ve met in the Dubai final -- the first coming four years ago when Djoker beat Fed in straight sets.
• Federer owns a luxurious Dubai apartment, an abode he’s likely seen a lot of this week. On Thursday, Federer needed only 20 minutes before Richard Gasquet retired with a back injury, and Friday, the young and talented Coric lasted just 56 minutes, giving Federer a lot more time away from the court than even he could have expected. It’s been a remarkably efficient effort this week from Federer, though he did have to storm back from a 4-1 first-set deficit against Fernando Verdasco earlier this week before reeling of 20 straight points. For what it’s worth, that match lasted only as hour as well. Djokovic’s semifinal alone took 2 hours, 4 minutes, just 12 minutes shorter than Federer’s past three matches combined.
• Prediction time. If you look at Federer and Djokovic’s semifinals in a vacuum, this one seems fairly obvious. But we all know that the top players in the world can compartmentalize better than anyone, which is why they’re the top players in the world. Federer understands he can’t get entrenched in long rallies, and Djokovic knows patience will serve him well. Against Berdych, Djokovic won only 45 percent of his second-serve points, which seems low for a player who is widely known as having one of the most efficient second deliveries in the game. Can Federer exploit Djokovic’s serve? My instincts say he will, considering the confidence he's shown this week. I’m going with Fed, who holds a 19-17 career head-to-head advantage against Djoker -- but in three tough sets.