May 8, 2020
A few days ago, Novak Djokovic was asked to reflect upon the magnificent 2019 Wimbledon men’s final he played against Roger Federer.
It was one of the best of all time. A final Djokovic probably shouldn’t have been allowed to win.
But he did. And the 7-6 (7-5), 1-6, 7-6 (7-4) 4-6, 13-12 (7-3) scoreline points to a surprising reason.
Novak is succinct and typically honest in his summary of that epic.
He explains it like this: ‘From a technical point of view, Roger’s game quality was excellent from the first to the last point – the numbers show that.
‘But I played the decisive points well.
‘I didn’t miss a ball in the three tie-breaks. Maybe that was the first time in my career.’
The chances of Djokovic actually doing that to win a Wimbledon final were tiny.
Under the circumstances, the victory was little short of miraculous.
You don’t think so? Then look at it this way.
Imagine someone had told you before Wimbledon 2019 that there would be three tie-breaks in the final.
Imagine they had also told you that Federer would be one of those finalists. What would your conclusion have been?
Most people would have bet their house on a twenty-first Grand Slam title for the greatest grass-court and tie-break exponent of them all.
Then imagine someone told you the final would be a five-setter – and Federer would win two of those sets without even needing the help of a tie-break.
What odds on Federer not taking at least one of the three remaining tie-break sets?
Now the chances of a Federer defeat have become almost too small to contemplate – even when the opponent is revealed to be the formidable Novak Djokovic.
Ah, we hear you say. But Djokovic is the master of precision. He is surgical. He is ruthless.
This is all true. But not so much in tie-breaks. Not always.
In fact Djokovic is right to point out that he is no world-beater in this key area of the game.
He is good. But not generally as good as Federer. And that may surprise some people.
Take a quick look at the stats after the last Grand Slam event of 2018, for example.
Federer was top of the all-time tie-break list with a 65.1% success rate. Djokovic was back on 63.3%.
It may not sound like much of a difference. But as those clever folks at FedEx ATP Performance Zone pointed out, Federer’s advantage was significant.
They explained at the time: ‘To pass Federer, the Serbian would need to win his next 19 tie-breaks without losing one, and have Federer stand still on the leader-board. Not so easy.’
Even now, the most recent set of figures we could find has Federer’s win percentage fractionally higher at 65.3%. Djokovic has of course gained ground to reach 64.7%.
That’s impressive progress for Novak. So you might logically think that before Wimbledon in 2019, Djokovic must have won every tie-break in sight, while Federer faltered.
Not so. Federer had won his last ten tie-breaks going into that classic 2019 Wimbledon final.
Three of those were at Wimbledon itself.
So surely Djokovic must have been equally imperious during breakers but for even longer, in order to have caught up with his rival to some extent?
Novak did go on an impressive run of six successive tie-break wins from Indian Wells to Rome. But those six wins were sandwiched between four tie-break defeats. Two on either side.
Novak even lost his only other Wimbledon 2019 breaker to Hubert Hurkacz in the third round.
So what on earth happened to turn things around in the Wimbledon 2019 final?
What happened to Federer after he won breakers against Jay Clarke, Lucas Pouille and then Rafael Nadal by an emphatic 7-3 on his way to the showpiece occasion?
To put it bluntly, Novak Djokovic happened. Not Djokovic, King of Breakers – because he wasn’t. Roger was that reigning king.
No, just Djokovic in general. The man who gets inside Federer’s head on the big stages.
And somehow, crucially, Roger forgot to draw mental strength from his superior overall record in breakers.
Surprisingly for such a great champion, he seems to have let negative thoughts enter his head instead. And Federer has put into words how fatal that can be.
Roger once explained: ‘I think when you go into a breaker with a negative mindset, very often you either start poorly and then you lose it anyway.
‘Or you actually start well, and you’re like, “I probably shouldn’t be in the lead,” and then you end up losing it. So I think a very positive mindset is good.’
But Federer couldn’t quite maintain that positive mindset against Djokovic. Not when it mattered most.
Even when he had two match points earlier in the final set, there seemed to be a nagging doubt.
Perhaps it was born of his previous Wimbledon final defeats to the younger man.
At any rate, the positive mindset he knew he needed against such a dangerous rival seems to have deserted the Swiss genius.
And that’s what allowed Djokovic to survive and then thrive.
Sensing his own superior relaxation and resolve, Novak worked miracles in all three tie-breaks.
He had the confidence to hit the ball sweetly on all the big points. Confidence that should have belonged to Roger.
Novak struck winners in the breakers as if in a dream. For the first time in his career, he says, there was total tie-break control when selecting shots with a high degree of risk.
Djokovic has the ability to sense and then feed off the slightest doubt in others.
And here’s the irony. When it came to tie-breaks, that doubt really shouldn’t have existed at all.
Except, perhaps, in Novak.