Both finalists were history men but Novak Djokovic underlined that he has more of it in front of him than does Roger Federer when he beat the Swiss in two sets to become the first player to win the ATP World Tour Finals title four years in a row.
He was worth it, holding his nerve under intense pressure as the Swiss strove against tiredness to make a fight of it. The world No1, ridiculously ahead of the field in the rankings, picked up 1,300 points he probably did not need in winning 6-3, 6-4 in an hour and 20 minutes and is unchallenged on any surface against any opponent as the best player in the world.
It was his fifth win over Federer in eight matches this year and drew him equal at 22 apiece in their career rivalry. Together they have won 11 of the last 13 season-ending titles, Federer taking six in all in a record 10 finals, Djokovic’s tally now standing at five in all.
It was not as routine as the score suggests but Djokovic finished the stronger. At 28, he is seven majors and six years behind the 17-slam, 34-year-old Federer although the Swiss holds up extraordinarily well in even the toughest examination of his stamina and strength.
So, a year after they should have contested the final, they were back to finish the job. Federer withdrew on the morning of the 2014 decider with a back injury before heading to Lille to help win the Davis Cup for Switzerland and Andy Murray accepted a late invitation to play an exhibition against Djokovic.
This was for real and both knew what was at stake. A lot of money for a start – £1,356,680 for Djokovic (Federer would have received £1,466,610 as a champion with no tournament defeats), numbers not far behind the majors: £1.8m at Roland Garros, £1.83m for the Australian, £1.88m at Wimbledon, and £2.17m for winning the US Open.
There was a bonus for an absent friend: defeat robbed Federer of the chance to leapfrog Murray and return to No2 in the world. This will give the Scot some breathing space the next time they all gather, at the Australian Open in January, where Murray and Djokovic will start the draw from opposite ends and could meet only in the final.
That is not to say Federer would not present the sternest of tests should he meet Murray in the semi-finals there. For now, the Swiss could reflect on another excellent season, another fine tournament. He maybe didn’t have the verve and attacking confidence he showed all week – but then he did have an absolute returning monster on the other side of the net.
“Even though it’s never fun being on the not-winning side, it’s good to be playing at all,” Federer said, in reference to his last-minute withdrawal from last year’s final. “Novak has had an unbelievable year.”
You could say that. He won three majors, stopped only in Paris by Stan Wawrinka who, for one glorious afternoon, was residing on another planet. Elsewhere, including Wimbledon and Flushing Meadows, where he was too good for Federer, he was frighteningly good.
This was never going to be a repeat of their match on Tuesday when Federer pretty much caught Djokovic cold. Armed with such recent intelligence the Serb was always going to come much better prepared for the final and the contest was a tough, uncompromising one from the start. “He was better in the group stage so I had to change something,” Djokovic said. “I returned better, made him play more shots. It’s difficult to have time to do anything against him. All in all, it was a very solid performance. I was glad to keep the focus and concentration up after a long season. Now I go on holiday to recharge my batteries.”
Federer was vulnerable on his second serve in the first set, winning only eight from 14, and could not cash in on two break points. Djokovic’s serve was solid again and although he did not hit as many clear winners – six to eight – he took two of his four opportunities to break and did the job in 39 minutes.
The second set was closer although there was always a feeling that Federer was struggling to stay with the power and precision of the champion. He had to save three break points in the eighth game to stay in the contest but Djokovic came at him again strongly in the 10th.
The pro-Federer crowd leaned forward, fearing the worst, when Djokovic grabbed two match points on their hero’s serve. He saved one and then, to the astonishment of everyone, Federer handed his rival the title with a double fault, his second of the match. Not many present could remember him ever having lost a match that way.
It has been a better week than last year for quality tennis, the doubles match between Jamie Murray and John Peers against the Bryan brothers probably a highlight – although neither reached the final. Earlier on Sunday, Jean-Julien Rojer, some-time hitting partner of Andy Murray, combined with Horia Tecau to beat Rohan Bopanna and Florin Mergea 6-4, 6-3 in the doubles final.