MELBOURNE, Australia — Great and enduring rivalries have been the motor for men’s tennis in the age of the Big Four: Roger Federer, Rafael Nadal, Novak Djokovic and Andy Murray, the Ringo Starr of this supergroup.
Djokovic is one victory away from finally having the edge over all three of his principal rivals. He has won nine of his last 10 matches against Nadal to take a 24-23 lead. He has won 10 of the last 11 against Murray to lead, 21-9.
But Federer, the oldest of the Big Four, by far, at age 34, has proved the toughest champion for Djokovic, now in his prime, to crack. Federer still poses quite a threat on grass and hardcourts, particularly quicker hardcourts.
Their Australian Open semifinal on Thursday will break their tie, with each having won 22 of their 44 matches.
“It does feel good, I must say, to level the head-to-head,” Djokovic, who once trailed Nadal and Federer by big margins, said. “I did go through my moments, periods of my career, where I was doubting myself, not knowing really if I can manage to get to No. 1 and achieve the childhood dream, break the dominance of these two guys. Of course, I’ve been through those moments, but those moments made me tougher. Under those circumstances and challenges when I was down, I had an opportunity to grow and to get better.”
Federer has used Nadal and Djokovic for fuel as well. Without younger challengers of their drive and caliber, Federer might not have found the motivation to keep pushing himself to quite the same degree, to take chances on racket changes and coaching changes.
But his revival after a difficult 2013 has been remarkable and prolonged. All that he is missing is another Grand Slam singles title to underscore the obvious.
“It’s part of the reason why I guess I’m still playing,” Federer said frankly, after beating Tomas Berdych, 7-6 (4), 6-2, 6-4, in the quarterfinals Tuesday. “I feel like I’m competitive at the top. I can beat all the guys on tour. It’s nice now that in the last three Slams that I’ve been as consistent as I’ve been. I’m playing good tennis, fun tennis for me, anyway. I really enjoy being able to come to the net more like back in the day. So I’m very pleased. It would mean a lot to me, no doubt about it.”
As usual, Djokovic is standing in the way of that 18th major title. Federer was in remarkable form at Wimbledon and the United States Open last year and was stopped by Djokovic in the final of both events. Federer is in remarkable form again in Melbourne and, as the No. 3 seed instead of the No. 2, will run into Djokovic one round earlier.
Could that work to his advantage? Perhaps. Federer might be fresher in a semifinal than in a final, and Djokovic is also one round removed from his shaky performance against Gilles Simon, in which he made a career-high 100 unforced errors and had only two return winners in his five-set victory in the fourth round.
That performance was a shock to Djokovic and his extensive entourage, but he decided to give himself a day off from practicing Monday to regroup and reboot. He went through his usual recovery routine but left his rackets alone and went for a walk in the Royal Botanic Gardens and to a birthday dinner with his team for his trainer Miljan Amanovic.
Djokovic then came out for his quarterfinal Tuesday night, broke Kei Nishikori’s serve from 40-0 in the sixth game and rolled to a surprisingly lopsided 6-3, 6-2, 6-4 victory in 2 hours 7 minutes. He finished with only 27 unforced errors.
“Less is more sometimes,” Djokovic said of his tennis-free Monday. “You need to recognize the moment. I’ve played a lot of tennis, maybe even too much. There was no concern for me that I would not feel the ball today. It was about getting recovery — physically, mentally — just being able to step out on the court today feeling fresh and having that intensity. I think it was the right decision.”
Nishikori, who beat Djokovic on a similar court in the semifinals of the 2014 United States Open, was the one piling up the errors instead as he pressed. Call it the Djokovic effect: the feeling that only your absolute best will be good enough. The phenomenon played a role in Federer’s defeats at Wimbledon and the United States Open last year.
“Kei played way too flat and a little far back in the court, and he rushed at some moments,” Dante Bottini, his co-coach, said. “For me, he should have been a little more patient and worked the point, but you have to give credit to Novak.”
For Bottini, the opening games and opening set against Djokovic are critical.
“You win the first set, make him doubt a little bit, and then you play with a little more confidence yourself,” Bottini said. “Once he starts rolling, it’s even more difficult.”
Federer has beaten Djokovic only once after losing the first set, in the semifinals in Dubai in 2014. He has not beaten Djokovic in a best-of-five-set match since the semifinals of Wimbledon in 2012 on his way to his 17th major singles title.
Djokovic, supremely fit and just 28, would seem to have the endurance edge even if he played it down Tuesday.
“I don’t think there’s too big of a difference physically,” Djokovic said. “He’s been winning quite comfortably this tournament. He’s pretty fit. He moves very well. The longer the match goes, maybe I have a slightly bigger chance. I don’t still think it’s something I can heavily rely on.”
What Federer plans to rely on is his ability to attack and then live with the consequences.
“It’s normal you are going to get passed,” he said. “I’m the one who attacks, so it’s me in a way who controls the match. I accept that. What I don’t accept is to be bad returning his second serve like I was at the World Tour Finals in London. I have to do better.”
But he also knows that if he gives Djokovic too much of any one tactic, Djokovic will probably find a way to lock in.
“I think the worst thing for a tennis player or any athlete is unpredictability, not knowing what is coming next,” Djokovic said in a recent interview. “That is what Roger possesses, the variety in his game. So that’s what plays with your mind. What is coming next? Will he do this SABR thing? Will he come to net? Will he stay back? Will he chip it? Will he rip it? It keeps you guessing all the time. That is why it’s so tough to play Roger.”
And yet, Djokovic — who has lost only one match since September — has usually guessed right.