WIMBLEDON, ENGLAND— “Well, we know each other’s games. We played many matches on different occasions. As you said, only once on grass court, but we played so many times in semifinals and finals of Grand Slams, different surfaces, big matches over the years. They were very exciting.”
Which of Sunday’s Wimbledon finalists, Novak Djokovic or Roger Federer, do you think said these words in his press conference on Friday? It happened to be Djokovic, but they could have been taken virtually verbatim from a dozen interviews with Federer before their meetings in the past. Both men agree: They know each other’s games well, and they’ve put them up against each other on every surface and in every type of tournament. They've faced off 34 times, and almost split those matches evenly. Federer leads their head to head 18-16.
By now Federer and Djokovic also have a good idea of what they’ll be trying to do to each other.
As Federer put it on Friday, “Well, we both like to be close to the baseline. We both like to take charge, especially on quicker courts...I think for me it’s really important to stay aggressive against him. And especially here at Wimbledon it’s more simple how we need to play against each other. It’s not like on a slow court where you can maybe maneuver the other guy around so much.”
Or, as Djokovic put it a few hours earlier, “The key against him in the game, of course, is trying to not allow him to dictate too much, because he likes to be very aggressive, he likes to come to net. I’m going to have to be able to get as many returns back in the court and try to also stay closer to the line, protect the baseline.”
Yet this match is also something of an anomaly. It’s only the second Grand Slam final they’ve played, and the first came seven years ago, at the 2007 U.S. Open. More significantly, the two have played just once on grass, two years ago here at Wimbledon, under the roof. Federer won in four sets over an uninspired Djokovic, who struggled to find his footing. This Sunday is forecast to be bright, with some chance of showers, especially later. It would seem, as I write this on Saturday evening, that the match will at least start with the roof open. While Djokovic has been in three of the last four Wimbledon finals, grass still favors Federer, the seven-time Wimbledon champion. Novak has never felt entirely comfortable bringing his sliding style to the surface—too often he ends up sprawled all over it.
Form also favors Federer. He has looked masterly in his six wins. He’s dropped one set, to an on-fire Stan Wawrinka in the quarters. Federer has moved well and incorporated his net attack effectively. He hasn’t been pushed to the limit, but he has beaten two potentially dangerous opponents in Wawrinka and Milos Raonic. Djokovic, on the other hand, hasn’t been at his best. He’s given away leads, grown agitated, and ultimately had to scratch and claw and bluff his way to victory.
Their form has been expressed in their demeanor the last couple of days. Federer has come across, as he always likes to come across, as the relaxed and confident veteran, champion, and father figure, the man who has it all.
“Eight is my favorite number,” a smiling Federer told the BBC on Saturday.
Djokovic, meanwhile, has been open about his struggles playing with leads, controlling his emotions, and winning major finals. Outside of the Australian Open, he has lost five straight.
“I want things to go a proper way from the first point to the last,” Djokovic said Friday, “so sometimes I get carried away with emotions....I was a set and a break up and, again, I made some unforced errors and gave my opponent today a hope that he can win the match. That’s something that I definitely cannot allow myself in the finals against Roger.”
Federer is 2-1 against Djokovic this season, and even in his one loss, at Indian Wells, he started fast and won the first set. I would guess the same will happen here, as he rides the early crowd excitement and his own traditionally easy early service holds. The key may come in the second set. Can Djokovic dig in and make Federer doubt? How much belief and fight will Djokovic have if he gets behind? As he says, he has had trouble accepting his runs of bad form lately, and it cost him in his last Grand Slam final, against Rafael Nadal in Paris. If Djokovic can weather the storm, grab one of the first two sets, and make Federer doubt, he’ll have a good chance.
And that’s the question for Federer: What happens if he begins to doubt? Only in the first two sets against Wawrinka has Federer been under pressure, and that pressure was relieved when Stan got hurt. As Djokovic says, if he can make returns and keep Federer off the net, the dynamic will turn in the Serb’s favor. Federer says everything is different this year, and his confidence is back where it once was. If Djokovic throws a few counter-punches his way, we’ll find out, once and for all, if that’s true.
Both men have a lot riding on the outcome. Djokovic desperately wants to end his run of final-round futility at the majors. Federer desperately wants to win this major, because at 32 it might be his last good chance at one, and he hasn't put it in two years of work to hold up the runner-up plate at Wimbledon. We won't know how each of those factors affects them until the match is over. That's why they'll play, and we'll watch.