Tennis players like to keep track of how well they do against their opponents. From local tennis clubs to the ATP Tour, rivalries form the backbone of a competitive player’s scene.
Within the big three, the rivalry between Federer and Djokovic is often understated, with the original Federer-Nadal or Nadal-Djokovic rivalries perhaps getting more attention. But examining the duels between Federer and Djokovic provides a useful way to look at the performance of both players over time.
I have focused on the head-to-head (H2H) matches, their grand slam counts, and performance by court surface to explore the rivalry. I have also chosen nine key matches to see how tactics also played a part.
What Do The Stats Initially Tell Us?
Broadly, the rivalry can be split into three stages. Initially, Federer was dominant over Djokovic for the most part. Federer fans and avid watchers of the tour will be well aware that Djokovic now leads Federer in their H2H matches by 27-23.
While no one likes to admit that their favourite player has been beaten more times by an opponent, looking at the matches across time, this is only a recent development in their history. For years since the 2006 Monte Carlo Masters until 2013, Federer built a healthy lead over Djokovic. The biggest gap occurred during the 2010 indoor hard court season, with tournaments like Shanghai, Basel and the ATP Finals helping his cause.
During 2010, we also see the biggest lead Federer had over Djokovic in terms of grand slams with 16-1.
The second stage of the rivalry runs from the 2013 ATP Finals until just before the 2015 Wimbledon final. Djokovic’s form improved and was close to equalling and leading in the H2H matches. But Federer always managed to gain one more victory and keep ahead.
The third stage runs from the 2015 Wimbledon final to the present day, where Djokovic’s consistency over Federer was finally realised and started to lead in the H2H match count. Significantly, 2021 was the year Federer, Djokovic (and Rafael Nadal) were tied on twenty grand slams each.
The gap between Federer and Djokovic’s H2H matches is split evenly between hard and grass courts, with Djokovic leading by two matches on both surfaces.
The rivalry at Wimbledon is a fascinating case. After Federer was able to keep Djokovic at bay in the 2012 Wimbledon semi-final, he had difficulty repeating it. In every subsequent meeting at Wimbledon, the pair faced each other in the final, with Djokovic coming out as the victor in four or five-set matches.
Both players are tied on their clay-court matches, though their battles on this surface seem to be a feature of their early and mid-rivalry, the last one being held at the 2015 Rome Masters.
Key Matches and Tactics
2006 Monte Carlo Masters – Federer (6-3, 2-6, 6-3)
Federer and Djokovic had their first match in the baking heat of the Monte Carlo Country Club. At the time, Federer was number one in the world, and Djokovic was a qualifier at eighteen years old.
Djokovic equalled Federer for speed and depth of shot. There were even a few backhands down the line – a trademark winner for Djokovic in later years.
However, Djokovic made more unforced errors than Federer, trying to go for winners when it wasn’t necessary and being too bold with shots when he saw Federer was out of position.
Federer himself mixed up his game, coming forward to endpoints when he could, either with a drop shot that was too far away for Djokovic to chase down or a backhand slice that stayed low and dug into the court.
Djokovic’s attempts to draw Federer into the net failed, as Federer was able to sweep the ball away in the forecourt for a winner.
As the match progressed, Federer was swift to build momentum, taking the ball at the top of the bounce, almost hitting down into Djokovic’s side of the court for a penetrating winner. Federer dominated with his forehand in this manner with great effect.
2007 Canada Masters – Djokovic (7-6, 2-6, 7-6)
The 2007 Canada Masters final was the first time Djokovic beat Federer, winning the title in the process.
Early warning signs were that all was not well when Federer was broken in his opening service game by an erroneous approach shot landing long.
Djokovic used acute angles to move Federer side to side and hit winners into open space. Djokovic employed his flexibility and movement to reach difficult balls placed by Federer, enabling him to keep in the rally even when on the defensive.
Djokovic’s groundstrokes were more reliable than in Monte Carlo, this time hitting winners from both wings with ease. Federer’s backhand, however, was letting him down. He would make an unforced error by either shanking the ball on the frame or hitting it into the net.
Some of his backhand groundstrokes from the baseline were considerably weaker than usual, and the shorter balls were pounced on by Djokovic for a clean winner.
2007 US Open – Federer (7-6, 7-6, 7-6)
Federer’s appearance at the 2007 US Open would mark an attempt to win the tournament for the fourth time and reach an eleven grand slam total.
Djokovic had proven to Federer that he could beat him on hard courts, but this time it was different. It was Djokovic’s first major final, and at key moments his nerves got to him. In the first set at 6-5, Djokovic double-faulted, triggering a tiebreak; at the end, he double-faulted again, Federer winning 7-4.
Similarly, at 6-5 in the second set, Djokovic went for a huge forehand down the line but missed, triggering another tiebreak and creating an opportunity for Federer to increase his lead.
In the opening stages of the match, Federer stood way behind the baseline and played it safe. High topspin forehands made sure he kept in the rally and did not make an error.
As soon as Djokovic hit a shorter ball, Federer would move in and hit a winner down the line. As the match went on and his confidence increased, Federer would move his position closer to the baseline, sometimes stepping far into the court. He would change from an open stance to a closed stance when hitting, making sure he was on his front foot and more aggressive with his shots. This was very effective at taking time away from Djokovic.
Federer was more consistent than at Canada. His serve was pinpoint accurate, enabling him to predict the return that would come back at him effectively, and set up the point ahead of time for a quick winner.
His net game was superb, coming in whenever he could, with deep and powerful volleys that ended the point. He also dealt with smashes exceptionally well and put away high balls with ease.
Federer’s backhand was also on much better form than in Canada, using it to hit clean down the line winners, while Djokovic was out of position and camped out on the ad court.
Though Federer’s win was in straight sets, the three tiebreaks showed that beating Djokovic was no easy feat. The Serb had the potential to pose greater challenges in the future.
2011 French Open – Federer (7-6, 6-3, 3-6, 7-6)
Djokovic was on a winning streak of 41 consecutive matches going into the 2011 French Open. He appeared relaxed and experienced with the 2008 and 2011 Australian Opens under his belt.
Though Federer had lost their past three encounters that year (the Australian Open, Dubai and Indian Wells), winning in the semi-finals would open the door to another grand slam final with Nadal.
Throughout the match, Federer’s serve had power and accuracy. Serving to stay in the first set at 5-6, Federer used a high kick serve out-wide, forcing an error from Djokovic, which triggered a tiebreak.
Djokovic’s clean and consistent strokes, which previously dominated the tennis world that year, became unstable. A wild forehand error into the net gave Federer the tiebreak and first set.
Federer played with zest and aggression. At one point in the second set, he went for the inside-in forehand down the line, a risky play because it left him exposed on his deuce side. The tactic paid off, and he hit a clean winner.
The backhand, which at this time in Federer’s career was traditionally used to build rather than attack, was used effectively to endpoints. Djokovic pulled Federer left and right with sweeping groundstrokes, only for the Swiss to flick a backhand winner down the line to the roar of a pumped-up French crowd.
While other players slid on clay, Federer glided, affording him decent shot tolerance when under attack from Djokovic and the ability to stay in the rally. Federer’s put his serve to good use on match point – an ace going down the line to close out the fourth set tiebreak.
2014 Wimbledon – Djokovic (6-7, 6-4, 7-6, 5-7, 6-4)
In 2014, Federer was attempting a record eighth Wimbledon title. But it would prove to be the first of three Wimbledon finals that Djokovic sealed victory against him.
Djokovic consistently played deep, topspin-heavy balls, which immediately put Federer on the back foot during the rally. Federer, by contrast, was hitting with less depth, so Djokovic was able to step inside the baseline and become more aggressive.
Federer’s backhand slice hung in the air as it sailed over to Djokovic’s side of the court, giving him time to attack and hit an outright winner. In the extended rallies, Djokovic made fewer mistakes, with Federer hitting more unforced errors.
Though Federer’s service was powerful and accurate, Djokovic’s return game was of the highest quality, putting the ball at Federer’s feet and gaining control of the point early on.
Federer had some success at the net. But his volleys were tamed, with Djokovic able to stretch sideways and make effective passing shots down the line, especially with the backhand.
2014 Shanghai – Federer (6-4, 6-4)
Federer’s 2014 Shanghai semi-final against Djokovic is one of my favourite matches. It’s such an exquisite demonstration of the net game in the Open Era and shows how efficient tennis can be.
Federer knew that in the longer rallies, Djokovic’s consistency would see him through. So Federer decided to finish points quickly and deny Djokovic the chance to build momentum from the baseline. To do this, Federer would routinely serve and volley or make an approach shot and volley.
The advantage of playing in Shanghai was that it was among the fastest-playing events on the ATP Tour. That meant Djokovic had less time to choose where his return from Federer’s serve or approach shot would go.
Often the cross-court pass was the only option. Federer could predict with great accuracy in which direction the ball was going to travel and precisely where to intercept it for a successful volley out of Djokovic’s reach.
As ATP commentator Robbie Koenig mentioned during the match – ‘Just goes to show you even someone as quick as Djokovic struggles to catch up to a good volley.’
For all of Djokovic’s flexibility and stretches, Federer closed in tight to the net if his opponent managed to return his first volley and smashed the ball away in an impressive overhead.
Federer also kept points short by precise serving, winning one game with four successive aces. Federer stayed close to the baseline, hitting winners off the return of serve or stepping forward to finish the rally with an aggressive forehand.
2018 Paris – Djokovic (7-6,5-7,7-6)
Federer was limited in the second half of the 2018 season with a hand injury. During the Paris Masters semi-final match against Djokovic, Federer seemed not to move physically or hit with as much confidence as he did earlier in the year.
The length of Federer’s groundstrokes was shorter than Djokovic’s, who was able to dictate play and go for more winners. Federer had some success at the net with slice volleys from the backhand. But Djokovic was dominant from the baseline and did not always provide Federer with an opportunity to come forward.
Djokovic targeted Federer’s backhand with a series of inside-out forehands, eventually forcing an error.
Though Federer did hit some backhand winners down the line, he would often default to the backhand slice in extended rallies. The slow float on the ball enabled Djokovic to set up an aggressive stroke and hit into Federer’s exposed deuce side.
2019 Wimbledon – Djokovic (7-6, 1-6, 7-6, 4-6, 13-12)
Tragically, Federer was not able to close out the Wimbledon final with two match points. Federer led Djokovic in more aces, first serves in, wins on first serves, wins on second serves, net points won, breakpoints won, receiving points won, and winners. He also had fewer double faults and errors.
Both players were in great form. Federer’s hit his backhands down with authority and grace; he could dictate with the forehand and played some exquisite volleys at the net.
Djokovic’s groundstrokes were hit with accuracy, reaching far into the corners out of Federer’s reach. His own backhand down the line was reliable as ever, taking Federer by surprise and forcing an error or a weak response.
But after Federer’s match points had been and gone, Djokovic was able to mount an impressive comeback underpinned by his mental strength. Djokovic was split-stepping with energy and verve, while Federer appeared slightly fatigued.
After a shank from Federer on Djokovic’s match point, it was all over. For the third time, Djokovic denied Federer another Wimbledon title.
2019 ATP Finals – Federer (6-4, 6-3)
Federer had a firm response after his Wimbledon defeat. In winning their next match at the O2 arena, he went through to the semi-finals and ended Djokovic’s chance to become the year-end number one.
Most significantly, it was the first match Federer had won against Djokovic since 2015. Federer’s serving was impeccable. He judiciously used aces to close out games, and 70% of his first serves went down the line.
Djokovic could only return 36% of them, hampered by Swiss precision. Federer had confidence on the backhand, hitting penetrating shots crosscourt and down the line.
Overall, his depth of shot-making was consistent, and together with the fast court speed, he was able to keep Djokovic on the back foot and force an error.
Federer took every opportunity to attack, as in Shanghai, to make the points brief and efficient. Federer’s movement was excellent, reaching balls laterally with ease and keeping him in the rally.
Conclusions – Explaining Shifts in Dominance
From 2006 until 2013, Federer was dominant over Djokovic for three main reasons. The first is that Federer had more match experience and development to call upon in their matches because he had turned pro five years earlier.
Secondly, Federer’s high level of tennis was very consistent because he reached his peak abilities (from 2004 until 2007).
This peak also featured Federer’s largest rate of increase in grand slam titles, winning three in 2007. Djokovic, by contrast, would have no major titles to his name until the 2008 Australian Open.
The third reason is that the huge gap Federer managed to create in the H2H matches in 2010, specifically aided by the faster court conditions of four successive tournament meetings – the US Open, Shanghai and Basel Masters, and the ATP Finals. These surfaces complemented Federer’s aggressive style of play.
From the end of 2013 until just before the 2015 Wimbledon final, Djokovic became a greater challenger to Federer because his relative form had improved sufficiently.
In 2014 Djokovic reclaimed the world number one ranking and gained confidence with a haul of victories; the Sunshine Double, Rome, Wimbledon, Beijing, Paris and the ATP Finals.
Federer, however, remained one step ahead. A definitive reason for this is not clear. Perhaps it was luck or court conditions that kept him in front. Either way, Federer’s greater experience must have again played a part in these matches.
From the 2015 Wimbledon final until the present day, Djokovic equalled Federer, then overtook him in their H2H matches. I don’t think differing levels of skill can account for this.
The 2019 Wimbledon final proved that Federer remained a deadly opponent for Djokovic in the most important of tournaments. But age and injury may have limited Federer’s movement to such a point that the comparatively younger Djokovic has managed to claim more matches.
But one question remains unanswered – can Djokovic win another major and surpass Federer for twenty-one grand slams? Surely, next year’s 2022 season will tell.