A few days ago, world No. 17 Bernard Tomic had a rather curious response to Roger Federer's "somewhat tough" assessment that Bernie's game wasn't good enough to crack tennis' Top 10.
"I think he is also far away from Djokovic as well," Tomic said. "If he believes I'm so far from the top 10, I believe my prediction that he's nowhere near Novak's tennis right now."
Beyond the hilarity of a kid with scant career accomplishments daring to go at a living legend in press, Tomic managed to touch on perhaps the most pressing questions in men's tennis: Just how close is Roger Federer to Novak Djokovic?
After the two met for the 45th time to determine the first finalist at this year's Australian Open, the question remains a bit tricky to answer. Djokovic advanced to his 17th straight tour-level final after taking down Federer 6-1, 6-2, 3-6, 6-3. It was Djokovic's fourth consecutive victory over his rival at the Grand Slam level, and the victory at long last gave him the head-to-head edge against Feds: He now holds a 23-22 lead in their career matchups.
This latest bout between the two greats could best be described as a play in two very different acts. In the opener, Djokovic was making jaws drop all over the world as he picked apart his illustrious foe with a simply absurd demonstration of tennis. That Federer, usually the one doling out beatdowns like this, was on the receiving end of such a demolition only made the spectacle more surreal. After the second set ended, the answer to the question of Federer's proximity to Djokovic seemed even more drastic than what Tomic had offered. The two men seemed separated by a veritable Grand Canyon of form, similar to the ocean that separates them in ATP ranking points.
However, that was just the first act of this Australian Open semifinal. For Act Two, the stunned crowd on Rod Laver Arena seemed to be replaced by the Oracle Arena rowdies that fuel the Golden State Warriors. Federer, a most proud champion in his own right, rode the wave of wild adoration flowing from the stands, performing age- (and physics) defying shots. Slowly but surely, he got inside Djokovic's head and succeeded in dragging the world No. 1 down from tennis Olympus. The crowd exploded when Federer finally took a lead in the third set, and you wondered if the building's foundations would survive the roar when he forced a fourth set. How close was Federer from Djokovic at that point? Quite close. At least as close as their US Open final bout, when Federer failed to capitalize on plenty of opportunities to turn the match in his favor.
The fourth set followed that trend, until we found ourselves in a sequence of events that drove to the heart of the Djokovic-Federer rivalry. At 3-4, the men played this absolutely ridiculous point:
This is absolutely bananas pic.twitter.com/OabiEyU2M3— The Cauldron (@TheCauldron) January 28, 2016
How can a 34-year-old win this point, perhaps the best of the tournament? No idea. And if said 34-year-old can perform feats like this – he has to be breathing down the neck of the man he just vanquished in this little skirmish, right? Listen to the crowd go absolutely nuts. They know this is the kind of point that Federer has used to turn the tide in previous matches – could he do it again?
No. A few minutes later, in that same 3-4 game, Djokovic had taken the only break point chance he generated in the fourth set and then calmly booked his spot in a fifth consecutive Grand Slam final. The rug had been pulled from underneath Federer's in the blink of an eye.
Why is it important to figure out how close Federer is to Djokovic? Probably a good part of the answer is that Federer, well into his thirties, remains Djokovic's biggest obstacle on the ATP World Tour. World No. 2 Andy Murray went 1-6 against Djokovic last year, whereas Federer managed a more respectable 3-5. You also get the sense that Federer himself feels driven enough to provide his own answer to the overarching question. Great athletes rarely shrink from a formidable challenge, and this is one of the biggest Federer has ever faced. After all, what would be more impressive for Federer than toppling an ultra-dominant Djokovic in the last act of a mythical career on his way to that elusive 18th Slam title?
You can write off Federer as delusional, or just a stereotypically stubborn great desperate to regain his place at the top. But tennis benefits from his refusal to accept a simple answer. Djokovic benefits from having an all time great push him on the biggest stages. And fans will always tune in to see how their battles unfold.
A potential third meeting in as many years at Wimbledon looms large later in the year. And even if Djokovic continues his unprecedented domination over men's tennis, we can rest assured that there will be one Swiss man who will continue to disagree with Bernard Tomic until the bitter end.