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Saturday, March 15, 2014
Updated: March 16, 11:02 AM ET
Federer no longer yesterday's champ

By Howard Bryant
ESPN.com

INDIAN WELLS, Calif. -- Sunday's BNP Paribas Open at Indian Wells men's final between Novak Djokovic and Roger Federer has appeal through a number of different lenses, which is what makes a great final. It is a matchup of two multiple-time champions here, as Federer has four titles, Djokovic two. The two will meet for the 33rd time overall, with Federer leading 17-15. It will be a rematch of their meeting last month in Dubai, where Federer broke a four-match losing streak to Djokovic and won his first title since last June.

Despite the valiance of John Isner, whom Djokovic beat 7-5, 6-7 (2), 6-1 in another desert classic semifinal, and Alexandr Dolgopolov, whom Federer dusted in the Ukrainian's semifinal debut 6-3, 6-1, the finale will continue the mandate of the times. Regardless of the outcome, a member of the Big Four will win a Masters 1000 title for the 27th time in the past 28 events. The only anomaly was David Ferrer's 2012 win over Jerzy Janowicz in Paris.

Most of all, the finale provides the marquee star power on the final Sunday that had been threatened to be doused completely by the rising surge of upsets that claimed Rafael Nadal and Andy Murray before the quarterfinals -- and with two players who have both everything and nothing to prove.

Federer
It's been a long time since Roger Federer won a title as big as the one he's going for at Indian Wells.
In 2012, Isner beat Djokovic in three thrilling sets that announced the American as the player no one ever wanted to face. He lost the next day to Federer in the final, but was officially a threat.

On Saturday, Djokovic had seemingly avenged 2012, holding in the first set from 0-40 at 4-5, breaking at 5-all and then holding for the set, and then breaking Isner again at 4-all in the second set to serve for the match.

Then Isner broke.

Then Djokovic broke again to serve for the match for a second time at 6-5.

Then Isner broke again to force the tiebreaker he rolled through 7-2 to force a completely unlikely third set.

"Twice I had a chance to finish it out and I played two bad games and he played an incredible tiebreaker," Djokovic said. "And you know, when you get to the tiebreaker with John Isner, whoever you are, you are not a favorite. I just tried to hang in there, stay mentally tough."

For the entire tennis package, Djokovic has looked like the best player in the world since 2011. No player controls the court against Rafael Nadal as Djokovic does. No player is as close to Nadal on clay as Djokovic, and no player has replaced Federer as more of a reliable pick to reach the final weekend of majors over the past three years.

Yet, Nadal took Djokovic's top ranking and has not relinquished it. Djokovic has appeared in six of the past eight major finals but has won only twice, both at the Australian Open. The air of invincibility Djokovic had crafted with his brilliant play and seeming ability to come back from impossible deficits has ebbed slowly.

Djokovic lost to Stanislas Wawrinka in the Australian Open quarters and Federer in Dubai. He hasn't won a title this year, and against Isner, he not only failed to serve out the match but missed a backhand down the line that would've given him a 2-0 lead in the third. It was Djokovic who exploded, wheels coming off, throwing his racket to the ground. Isner, though struggling with a left knee injury, had the crowd and momentum behind him. He held for 1-1.

Then Djokovic found himself and reeled off five straight games and the match, the key sequence coming after he broke Isner for a 3-1 lead and was immediately down 0-30. Yet the Serb fired two service winners and fought off a break point before an inside-out forehand secured the game at 4-1.

"Well, it's frustrating," Djokovic said of the racket toss and subsequent recalibration. "Definitely when you have opportunities that I had in the second set to close it out, and I just managed to regroup, you know, after that reaction.

"I didn't let my concentration drop for a long time," he said. "Next point, I was already back in the game, where I needed to be."

For the second time in three years, Djokovic and Isner put on a stirring show. Isner did not win the battle, but he improved in the long term, returning to the top 10, while Djokovic surprisingly will play in his first final of 2014. He and Federer are even in finals at 4-4.

"It's always tense. It's always emotional. It's always close," Djokovic said. "I don't think that especially in the last 15 matches we played against each other that there was a clear favorite, I would say. So, we played a lot of great, great matches in Grand Slams and Masters Series events and tournaments. I look forward to it. It's always challenge in every way to win against Roger."

Meanwhile, there was certain predictability to Federer's decisive win over Dolgopolov. The Ukrainian hadn't played Federer in four years, putting him at a severe disadvantage in terms of having no visual repetition with Federer's game. Federer had won this title four times. Dolgopolov was playing in his very first Masters 1000 semifinal. Dolgopolov was playing a virtual road game, as everyone in the audience (and in a somewhat disturbing display of overenthusiasm, even the chair umpire Mohammed Lahyani) was overwhelmingly a Federer partisan. It is a perk of living in the legend's suite.

Even the rhythm of the match followed the typical blueprint of a player facing uncharted territory against a giant. Federer and Dolgopolov traded blows through seven games, Dolgopolov on serve at 3-4.

But in any match, the eighth game is the one where the levels are raised and Federer raised his on Dolgopolov's serve, earning his first break point. Dolgopolov, who didn't serve well all day, dropped a 124 mph serve that Federer returned. Federer later took a 5-3 lead when Dolgopolov sailed an inside-out forehand wide.

"From the start of the match, I was just not good enough to compete with him today," Dolgopolov said. "He was playing better and better, so that wasn't helping me at all. He wasn't giving me any free points. I mean, my serve wasn't there, a lot of things that I mean, and with those things I didn't deserve to win today."

Novak Djokovic
Novak Djokovic can erase a disappointing season so far with one more win in the desert.
Unfortunately for Dolgopolov, the universe also rebalanced itself at exactly the wrong time. In his thrilling quarterfinal win over Milos Raonic, one of the biggest-serving players on tour, Dolgopolov put on a show, returning 135 mph, 140 mph serves to break Raonic's will. Against Federer, who did not break 125 mph, but who didn't face a single break point in the match, Dolgopolov was vexed by both Federer's pinpoint accuracy and the weather conditions.

"Today it was sunny and today it was windy," Dolgopolov said. "I return flat and quite fast, so today you could see a lot of balls that were out by not much. I wasn't getting used to those conditions. Plus Roger's serve is really accurate. It's close to the lines, and if you're not perfect with those conditions, it's not easy to return that way. I don't think I returned bad. I couldn't also attack a lot of his serves because of the winds, and I was missing a lot. So, I think all together that's what the problem was. Yesterday was perfect conditions for me."

As for Federer, he is simultaneously dismissive of talk of his rebirth in 2014 while conceding that in 2013, he was more hurt than he let on, far more concerned about his play and his body than he would then admit.

"I think I'm playing more freely and with more confidence because I can get to more balls without thinking," Federer said. "I can wake up in the morning without feeling sore. I can go to bed not feeling like, 'I hope I feel better tomorrow.' I don't have these thoughts going through my mind, and I'm not worried sort of every single minute of the day."

Now, Federer is free to be candid. He injured his back a year ago here, in the second round. The injury lasted about three weeks. There were patches during the clay season when his condition improved, but back spasms in Hamburg pushed him back, and he lost in two tiebreakers to Federico Delbonis.

"Then, I really like questioned everything," Federer said. "I think that time I got hurt was more I think I was warming up because they have an indoor arena there because I always like playing soccer a little bit as a warm-up. I think from playing soccer I hurt my back, just like from passing around. I think it came from something else, but I just realized my back was really fragile. That's when I put everything into question and really had to rethink my routines."

There are feelings and there are facts. These are the facts: Federer was 0-6 against Murray, Djokovic and Nadal in 2013. He won one title, a 250 event in Halle leading up to Wimbledon. He couldn't beat his rivals but lost to guys like Delbonis, Daniel Brands and Sergiy Stakhovsky, and was routed in New York by Tommy Robredo. He slipped to eighth in the world.

In 2014, which is not even 90 days old, Federer is playing in his third final and looking for his second title. He has already beaten Murray in a major and Djokovic at a 500-level tournament. Perhaps a phenomenon is taking place, as Federer rises in health and confidence, while the field -- thanks to injuries to Nadal (back),  Murray (back), Juan Martin del Potro (wrists) and Jo-Wilfried Tsonga (knee) -- is slipping back toward him. The dual effect is a suddenly awake Federer who can no longer be dismissed as yesterday's champion. The lion may still be in winter, but he's still a lion, and once again, playing for a title.