A person could be forgiven for wondering why Roger Federer looked so angry when he set forth Sunday at the ATP World Tour Finals to complete what has become his Mission Improbable -- to snatch the prestigious year-end No. 1 ranking out of top-ranked Novak Djokovic’s hands before the end of this week. Doing so would make Federer the oldest year-end No. 1 since the rankings were instituted.
In just the second game of his first match, the all-time Grand Slam singles titlist drilled a ball right at the navel of his opponent, Milos Raonic. When he broke Raonic’s serve a few points later, he grunted out an exclamation. It wasn’t that familiar, sotto voce “Come on,” either. It was some sort of exotic expletive, coughed out like a bark.
Sheesh. You would have thought it was Jimmy Connors or John McEnroe out there. Why so angry, Roger? You have 17 major titles. You have a lovely wife and you got four kids for the price of two with that pair of twins. You’ve won 82 singles titles and more moolah (over $86 million) than a winner of the Powerball lottery. Does finishing No. 1 -- something you’ve already done on five previous occasions (the last in 2009) -- really mean that much to you?
Oh … silly of me to ask.
Actually, Federer had fairly valid, less-than-cosmic reasons to go into his first match at the year-end championships with his nose out of joint. It was Raonic, an otherwise likable Canadian giant, who put Federer into the bind he faces this week. Raonic knocked Federer out of the Paris Masters 1000 a little over a week ago. That helped Djokovic cruise to the title. It also turned what was shaping up as a noble effort on the part of the Swiss icon into what looks like an almost certainly doomed one.
The upset by Raonic meant that top-seeded Djokovic entered the WTF needing to win only his three round-robin matches to hang on to the prestigious year-end top ranking.
Federer, seeded No. 2 in the WTF, didn’t allow himself to get all bummed out by the altered landscape. He just took his frustrations out on Raonic, pummeling the pride of Thornhill, Ontario, 6-1, 7-6 (0). Federer almost certainly went to sleep hoping that Marin Cilic might find the form he showed at the US Open and batter Djokovic off the court in the WTF opener for both men Monday. But that didn’t happen. Djokovic hammered the No. 8 seed 6-1, 6-1 in an ugly match that lasted barely 55 minutes.
So much for the idea that fatherhood -- a state Djokovic has experienced for exactly 21 days now -- has mellowed or perhaps even distracted the Serbian champ. Djokovic is 57-8 on the year, but he’s undefeated as a papa. Against Cilic, Djokovic played as if his kid, Stefan, would never have shoes if he lost.
Cilic, a raw-boned Croatian who stands 6-foot-6, won just half of the points when he put that big first serve into play, and a dismal 24 percent of the second-serve points he offered up. Cilic’s mentor is the all-time ATP leading ace-maker, Goran Ivanisevic. Cilic is so besotted with his coach that he’s redesigned his service action into an almost exact copy of Ivanisevic’s. Given that, the successful service-points-won numbers are dismal -- but don’t neglect to factor Djokovic’s service return into your analysis. The ability to read an opponent’s serve and whale on it is one of Djokovic’s most striking assets, even if sits there as something like an inconvenient truth for nonbelievers.
I’m not sure just how Djokovic devolved into the guy so few people really trust anymore, at least not when it comes to big moments. I suppose going 2-5 in recent Grand Slam finals (after going 5-2 in his first seven major finals) might have something to do with it. So does Rafael Nadal, who keeps meeting Djokovic’s push to win a French Open final with the athletic equivalent of disdain. Roger Federer also has contributed his share to the saga; he’s fought Djokovic to a 5-5 standstill in their past 10 meetings (since Wimbledon of 2012).
Djokovic himself has contributed to this narrative. After declaring himself the new marshal in town in 2011, he’s regressed to the Nole of yore, the player who was always a little, well, complicated. He’s mercurial, brilliant and saddled with an instinct for self-sabotage. He’s got a yen for drama, which isn’t always a virtue when it comes to production because it isn’t very dramatic to win -- or lose -- all the time.
Nevertheless, the way Djokovic played Monday demonstrated that he’s fully aware of what Federer is up to -- and not having any of it. We’ll see what Tuesday brings, with Kei Nishikori poised to challenge Federer in the early singles match. Perhaps if he’s feeling sufficiently sadistic, Djokovic might feel moved to watch as the walls close in on his rival.