Standing across the net from Roger Federer triggers something in Novak Djokovic. The level the world No.1’s game reached during the first two sets of his 6-1 6-2 3-6 6-3 semifinal victory on Thursday night at times beggared belief. He demanded the very best from Federer, who obliged with a defiant performance in the third set – and when the Swiss flinched in the fourth, Djokovic completed his beautiful coup.
The defending champion is through to his sixth Australian Open final, where he awaits either Andy Murray or Milos Raonic in his bid to become the most decorated men’s champion of the Open Era, matching Roy Emerson’s six Australian titles.
Whatever the outcome of Sunday’s final, Djokovic’s place in Australia’s pantheon of champions is assured. His performance against Federer reached near-mythic heights, at one stage threatening to subject his fiercest rival to the heaviest Grand Slam defeat of his career. With 54 minutes gone, Djokovic had claimed the first two sets for the loss of just three games, making just six unforced errors in the process.
“I think against Roger, these first two sets have been probably the best two sets I've played against him overall I think throughout my career,” Djokovic said. “I've had some moments against him in sets where I've played on a high level, but this was, yeah, I think a different level than from before.”
Djokovic now leads his head-to-head against Federer for the first time in their careers, 23-22. With leading records and at least 20 wins against Rafael Nadal, Andy Murray and Stan Wawrinka as well, the win further confirmed his current dominance of his closest rivals, while booking his place in a 17th consecutive final – dating back to last year’s Australian Open – underlined his recent sovereignty of the men’s game.
“To sustain that level and throughout the year to be actually consistent requires a lot more than just a good game,” Djokovic said. “I'm going to try to stay here as long as possible. That's from my perspective what I can influence, what I can do.
“Whether or not I'm going to be dominant in the years to come, I don't know. I cannot give you an answer on that. I can try to do my best to try to keep playing on this level.”
It is a level few can live with. For Federer, at least, there is the consolation of his third-set revival, and the heights his own game reached in the fourth. One point in game eight, while serving at 15-30, Federer surged forward only to be forced to field a dipping backhand pass from Djokovic. The Serb lofted a lob that Federer looped towards the Rod Laver Arena roof, fielded the smash and then threaded a running backhand down the line to bring the spectators to their feet as one.
It was to be the last point Federer would win at this year’s Australian Open. Djokovic reset, returned and received a healthy dose of luck when a net-cord lifted the ball over Federer’s racquet for a pass winner, the first of six straight points that sealed victory in two hours, 19 minutes.
“His defence was terrific that point,” Djokovic said of Federer’s last stand. “After it was done, I had to just forget about it and focus on the next point. Managed to return two very good returns and pass him on the net. That was a crucial break.
“Obviously I didn't want to allow him to come back to the match and give him an opportunity maybe to take the match to the fifth.
“I know that if I drop my level or concentration or allow myself to get distracted by anything that he would take the first opportunity, jump on me, and just take the lead of the rallies.
“That's what he has done in the third. He just waits for a little drop from his opponent. That's why he's been so successful throughout his career.”
Such prescience is now a hallmark of Djokovic’s success, a perfect tyranny that could yet threaten Federer’s haul of 17 Grand Slams in the fullness of time.
“It’s important at the end of the day that your convictions are stronger than your doubts,” he said afterwards, the moral to another piece of sporting theatre that captivated from first point to last.