World No. 1 Novak Djokovic has a monkey on his back the size of Cincinnati.
In their first meeting since the Wimbledon final six weeks ago, world No. 2 Roger Federer avenged his London defeat by beating Djokovic 7-6(1), 6-3 Sunday to win the Western & Southern Open for the second straight year and record seventh time overall.
Alas, the fifth time was not a charm for Djokovic, who bafflingly remains trophyless at the Cincinnati Masters despite his five finals appearances. It's the only Masters 1000 event he hasn't won.
"This is now the fifth time that I’ve been in the finals and never won this title," Djokovic said after the match, "and so I guess I have to wait for Roger to retire and then try to do something out there."
It was the capper to an otherworldly tournament for Federer. In vintage form two weeks after his 34th birthday, he romped to the title without dropping a set or even a service game. Against Djokovic, he didn't face a single break point, and though he struggled to convert his own break opportunities (just 1-of-8 for the match), he never seemed to be in any danger, and the match was played on his terms. Simply put, Djokovic didn't have an answer for his opponent's marauding net play.
Federer's late-career surge has largely been powered by his increasingly daring dashes to the forecourt, but rarely has he approached with the aggressiveness or savage efficiency he did on Sunday. Whether behind his serve or return, he came forward early, ended points quickly, and kept all the pressure on Djokovic. When he wasn't approaching, Federer was scampering around his backhand and unleashing hell with the forehand, keeping Djokovic pinned with deep, heavy strokes.
"Too good, too good," an exasperated Djokovic told his opponent – who scored 32 winners to Djoker's 19 - when the two shook hands at the net. It was hard to argue.
One notable wrinkle Federer adopted in Cincinnati – initially as a gag, according to the man himself – saw him blitz opponents' second serves and return them from as close in as the service line. He didn't employ the tactic as frequently against Djokovic as he did against Andy Murray in the semis, but he did use it to win a massive point to go up 4-1 in the first-set tiebreak, digging out a half-volley from practically behind his body and forcing Djokovic to hit an under-pressure backhand that found the net.
It was just one point and it wasn't even executed perfectly (Djokovic still had to miss, after all), but it served as a reminder that the most important thing Federer still has going for him, as he motors through his supposed twilight years, is courage.
That's something he'll need every bit of when he takes a 13th crack at winning his 18th major just over a week from now. He and Djokovic may well meet again on the hardcourts at the US Open. After nudging his nose back ahead in their epic head-to-head (21-20), Federer has plenty of reason to believe he can win it.