Djokovic-Federer: This Wimbledon Final Was Like None Before It

Novak Djokovic (photo: Wimbledon)

LONDON, July 16, 2019 (by Michael Dickens)

Throughout the gentlemen’s singles final at the Wimbledon Championships Sunday, the margins were so small, the tension and excitement of a five-hour classic so great. It didn’t matter who won or lost. Novak Djokovic and Roger Federer entertained the world with their excellence, in which the winner saved two match points and the outcome was decided in a first-of-its-kind tiebreaker.

The No. 1 seed Djokovic, 32, captured his fifth Wimbledon crown and his 16th Grand Slam title overall, outlasting the 37-year-old Federer 7-6 (5), 1-6, 7-6 (4), 4-6, 13-12 (3). The fifth set, alone, which was decided by a 12-games-all seven-point tie break, lasted two hours.

For much of the match, it was Federer who seemed to be the better player on Centre Court. But in the end, although he was on top of most of the statistical categories – which one Twitter pundit likened to winning the policy debates and popular vote in a U.S. presidential election, but ultimately losing to the Electoral College count – statistics didn’t count for a thing.

The latest Djokovic-Federer clash had something for everyone. It was tense, it was brilliant, it was bold, it was baffling, it had star power. It had royalty, movie stars and dot.com titans watching from the Royal Box. At times, Federer’s wife, Mirka, could be seen – picked up by the TV cameras – with her head buried in her hands, too nervous and unable to look up at the action down on the court. Other times, Djokovic’s mother, Dijana, was shown clutching a religious pendant with both hands, perhaps seeking divine intervention. Interspersed, there was plenty of superior, high-quality play displayed by both superstars. Each took time looking for weaknesses in each other’s game. There was much creative shotmaking throughout by both Federer and Djokovic to appreciate. Long, back-and-forth rallies were plentiful and not uncommon.

At times, both played like they were the best player in the world. Djokovic is the current No. 1 and Federer is a longtime former No. 1 who is currently ranked third. In losing, Federer came close to winning. In the fifth set, he had two championship points on his racquet, serving for the match at 8-7, 40-15, and was unable to convert either of them into his ninth Wimbledon singles championship, which would have tied him with Hall of Famer Martina Navratilova. He won 36 games during the match to 32 for Djokovic. He hit 94 winners compared to 54 for Djokovic. He hit more aces, 25 to 10, converted seven of 13 break point chances and, more often than not, controlled many of the points until he didn’t.

When he was asked during his post-match interview session what went wrong at the critical point of the championship match, Federer said simply, “One shot I guess. Don’t know which one to pick. Your choice.”

However, in the tightest moments of the match – the three tie-break deciders that came in the first, third and fifth sets – Djokovic reigned supreme. He proved more mentally fit and physically tougher. Meanwhile, Federer made some questionable decisions in each of the tie breaks, and each time, they came back to haunt him.

“I thought most of the match I was on the back foot,” Djokovic said during his news conference after beating Federer for the third time in a Wimbledon final. “I was defending. He was dictating the play. I just tried to fight and find a way when it mattered the most, which is what happened.”

In the end, on match point, Federer shanked a return high in the air – and it cost him dearly. Djokovic won the match and his fifth Wimbledon crown, not because he was necessarily the best player on Centre Court Sunday. Instead, he played the best when he needed to the most.

Federer and Djokovic reflect on losing and winning

Reflecting on what might have been, Federer said, “I just feel like it’s such an incredible opportunity missed, I can’t believe it.”

Federer was asked how his latest Grand Slam setback at Wimbledon compared to his epic 2008 loss to Rafael Nadal. “This one is more straightforward maybe in some ways because we didn’t have the rain delays, we didn’t have the night coming in and all that stuff,” he recalled. “But sure, epic ending, so close, so many moments. I mean, sure there’s similarities. But you’ve got to go dig, see what they are. I’m the loser both times, so that’s the only similarity I see.”

And what did Djokovic think of winning his 16th career major after being on the brink of defeat? “It was kind of a flashback,” he said, remembering that he saved two match points against Federer in the semifinals at the U.S. Open in both 2010 and 2011. “But look, in those kind of moments, I just try to never lose self-belief, just stay calm, just focus on trying to get the ball back, return, which wasn’t serving me very well today.”

Djokovic called his latest classic encounter with Federer, which was his fifth straight win over the Swiss star and fifth straight in Grand Slam play, “the most mentally demanding match” of his career. While he said that his nearly-six hour, 2012 Australian Open final against Nadal was “the most physically demanding match” he’s ever played, against Federer Sunday, “mentally this was a different level because of everything.

“You need to be constantly playing well throughout five hours if you want to win a match like this. I guess there is an endurance part. But I think there is always this self-belief. You have to keep reminding yourself that you’re there for a reason and that you are better than the other guy.”

Around the All England Club

On Sunday, the Royal Box was filled not only with members of the royal Family, the Duke and Duchess of Cambridge – Prince William and Kate Middleton – as well as tennis royalty: Rod Laver, John Newcombe, Stan Smith and Manolo Santana. Also, multi-millionaire Amazon.com founder Jeffrey Bezos, and actors Benedict Cumberbatch, Tom Hiddleston and Edward Norton were in attendance.

The duchess presented a Wimbledon trophy for the first time as Royal Patron of the All England Lawn Tennis Club. She congratulated Roger Federer after his defeat, putting a reassuring hand on his arm, and telling he had put on an “incredible” show.

By the numbers

• Novak Djokovic became the first man to win a gentlemen’s singles final at Wimbledon after saving match point since 1948, when Robert Falkenburg of the United States came back to beat John Bromwich of Australia after saving three match points.

• With his win on Sunday, Djokovic is now 30-10 in five-set matches, including 9-1 at Wimbledon and 3-1 in Grand Slam finals.

• By winning Wimbledon to go along with his Australian Open title in January, it marked the fifth time that Djokovic has won two or more Grand Slam titles in the same year. In 2018, Djokovic won Wimbledon and the U.S. Open. In 2016, he won the Australian Open and Roland Garros, and in 2011 and 2015, it was the Australian Open, Wimbledon and U.S. Open trifecta.

• Djokovic became the fourth men’s player in the Open Era to win five or more Wimbledon titles, joining Roger Federer (8), Pete Sampras (6) and Bjorn Borg (5).

What they’re saying

David Law, co-host of The Tennis Podcast: “We have just had one of the most extraordinary days in sports history. Not only have we just had Novak Djokovic win the first-ever singles 12-all tie break in the men’s singles final to win his 16th Grand Slam singles title, doing so from two match points down, but simultaneously England won the Cricket World Cup for the first time. It’s been exhausting, exhilarating, I don’t know really where to start.”

What they’re writing

• Simon Briggs, Daily Telegraph tennis writer, from “Novak Djokovic beats Roger Federer in longest Wimbledon final to claim fifth title”: “Not for the first time, Djokovic defied the vast balance of crowd support. There was a memorable moment at the end of the match when he stood and stared up into the screaming mass of fans – not saying anything, but just projecting a “Yeah, you and whose army?” kind of vibe. Then he squatted down on his hips and performed his personal tradition of plucking a blade of grass and eating it.”

• Christopher Clarey, New York Times tennis columnist, from “Djokovic, in a Heart-Stopper: In a 5-Hour Classic, Saving 2 Match Points And Winning a First-of-Its-Kind Tiebreaker: “Federer has experienced no shortage of joy at the All England Club since he arrived as a junior and won the boys title in 1998. But he has now played three classic finals at Wimbledon and lost two of them. Rafael Nadal defeated him 9-7 in the fifth set in 2008 in a match that finished in fading light as was widely acclaimed as one of the best in tennis history. In 2009, Federer bounced back by winning a serving duel with Andy Roderick, prevailing 16-14 in the fifth set.”

• Louisa Thomas, The New Yorker writer, from “Novak Djokovic, a Spoiler and a Champion at Wimbledon”: “For most of his career, Djokovic has been under appreciated, and he has been regarded as a kind of intruder. There are many reasons for this – some simple, some complex – but, when he beat Federer on Sunday, 7-6 (5), 1-6, 7-6 (4), 4-6, 13-12 (3), he showed yet again how well-suited he is to the role of spoiler, and, doing so, raised a few questions about what greatness even means. After all, for much of the match, Federer seemed to be the better player. But in the end that didn’t count for a thing.”

What they’re tweeting

Roger Bennett (@rogerbennett), co-host of NBC’s Men In Blazers: “Coco Gauff forced you to think about how at 15 you had big dreams, a love for music and stolen beers. Roger Federer makes you marvel at other end of age spectrum. How at 37 you had realized life was dark and all hope cruelly dashed. This Wimbledon has showcased both human wonders.”