July 14, 2019
For Novak Djokovic, a sixteenth Grand Slam title and the right to be called the winner in a genuine epic.
A tie-break won 7-3 in the final set after deadlock at 12-12. So to Djokovic the spoils, 13-12 after five scintillating sets in four hours and fifty-seven minutes. The longest final and surely this classic was right up there with the best. Roger Federer no longer had the juice to aim straight. Who could blame him after all he had given? He may not have won a 21st Grand Slam but he earned rewards you can’t quantify. Despite the heartbreak, even more, love and respect for the part he played in one of the great finals. Djokovic beat his chest and pointed to the sky. A worthy winner. He took all three breakers. Utterly ruthless. And yet the amazing Federer was so, so close. He did everything but serve one last ace.
Point of victory.
How did he even reach the very point of victory? Against all the odds and all the established rules of time and age, Federer broke to go 8-7 ahead in the fifth. Surely it should have been Federer who had already faded? Surely the older man was not going to prevail in a five-set war of attrition?
Massive serving brought Roger two match points. Novak saved both of them, the second with a superb cross-court pass as an exhausted Federer tried to finish it at the net. How can mere numbers do justice to this rich sporting poetry? How does 7-6 (7-5), 1-6, 7-6 (7-4), 4-6, even begin to tell such a gripping story? And that was only the first four sets, before the denouement. Then the fifth. You couldn’t make it up. A desperate dive by Djokovic to prevent what would have been two break points at 5-5 in the decider. Instead, he held. Tired shots from Federer. Mistakes from Novak. On they fought. A crazy drive-volley too long from Roger. A brilliant recovery of nerve. More pressure from Djokovic. An ace from Fed. Finally, 6-6. But no early breaker this time.
Unbelievably thrilling drama. A fitting climax to one of the most captivating Wimbledon championships of all time.
In the end, fatigue might have done for Federer. Five gruelling sets were bound to lead to physical and mental strain in a man who turns 38 in a few weeks. But what bravery from Roger to break back to 3-4 when all seemed lost in the fifth. How deeply he dug to thrill Centre Court and the many millions watching around the world. What determination to level at 4-4 when his serve was under so much pressure. And yet, for all that, Djokovic stuck to his guns and edged ahead once more, just a game from glory. Still, Federer held his nerve and pushed for victory. Agonisingly, it remained just outside his grasp. The most beautiful, flowing tennis mainly came from the supremely graceful Federer. The deadliest and most timely solutions often flew off the racquet of Djokovic.
When he looks back, Federer will know he really should have won the opening set.
Federer had a break point to go 3-1 and might have converted had he aimed his forehand straight down the line. But his tougher diagonal effort sailed too long and the chance was gone. He was also two points away from taking the first set 6-4 when he played what must have been one of the most beautiful drop shots of his entire career.
Once more Djokovic demonstrated a stubborn streak to fight his way out of a hole and get back on track.
It was all down to a tie-break. Federer had the chance of a mini-break but failed to wrong-foot Novak with a forehand. On the next point, he had Djokovic at his mercy and fired too long. Roger should have been 3-0 up but soon he was 3-1 down – another overhit landing beyond the baseline. But Federer reached parity with a magnificent backhand and broke again by sending Novak the wrong way at last.
He was 5-3 up when two more loose forehands let him down. Who would show enough composure to win this? Djokovic was first to set point and Roger made it easy for his rival by pulling his backhand wide. After all those chances to take control, Federer had fallen a set behind, 7-5 in the breaker. Roger hit back the only way he could – by breaking Novak in the opening game of the second. But he didn’t just do it once. He did it again to go 3-0. Suddenly it was Federer who had the composure and precision. Djokovic was visibly wilting – for the time being at least – down 0-4 and lacking focus.
Federer showed the full range of his genius. Deft angled drop-shots, fizzing forehands and backhand. Novak couldn’t cope or didn’t want to once he knew the set had gone. Just as Federer had conceded a set 6-1 against Nadal, so Djokovic did the same against Roger. But you felt sure he would be back with a vengeance in the third. Even though he should really have been two sets behind by that point. Instead, it was Federer who earned a set point at 5-4 with a thunderous forehand, followed up by a magical drop-shot on the half volley. The technique was simply staggering. Sadly for the 37-year-old, he couldn’t take advantage.
It came down to a tie-break once more.
Federer allowed himself to be broken on the very first point and slipped to 0-3 with a wild backhand. Another faulty backhand and he trailed 1-4. A rally of sensational quality saw Roger blink first. He was about to lose yet another breaker and fall behind in the match too. Novak took the tie-break 7-4. It scarcely reflected how the match had flowed. But it did illustrate who had played the big points best. And big points are what Grand Slam finals are all about. So could Federer convert one of his two break points to go 3-2 ahead in the fourth? Sure he could, the pace of Roger’s return too much for Novak. Now we had a match on our hands once more. The renowned precision of Djokovic was failing him for another spell of this intriguing afternoon.
Federer turned up the subtlety at the net to lethal levels.
Drop-shots and volleys of unplayable quality. He raced ahead to 5-2. Then they duked it out once more with a rally of unbelievable rhythm and beauty. Federer wrong-footed his rival to win it. But he lost his service game. At 5-3 he did at least have one more break in hand. And he was going to need it as Novak clawed his way back to 4-5. Under the most extreme pressure, Federer produced his very best tennis, as great champions do. He closed out with a drive-volley for 6-4 and a tantalising two sets all. What a final! Djokovic had two break points to go 3-1 up in the decider. Roger saved them both, sent a forehand wide and saved a third with an ace. How long could a man who is 38 next month play with this kind of lively defiance?
Federer tried so hard to break Djokovic in the next game that he no longer had the energy to protect his own service immediately afterwards. A desperate rush to the net was exposed by a killer backhand from Djokovic, who now led 4-2. There was a way back for Roger temporarily when he broke back so courageously. He fought like a tiger until he had nothing left. But who could deny that Novak Djokovic deserved his sixteenth Grand Slam title? Not even the great Federer himself would dare to do so. Novak out-lasted the older man and kept his head.
The rest was what makes Djokovic world number one. Patiently probing, penetrating…winning.