Nole Finds His Way

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All photos by Anita Aguilar, final photo by AP

WIMBLEDON, ENGLAND—How do you know a men’s final on Centre Court here will be remembered forever? It must first involve a furious, back-to-the-wall, match-point-saving comeback in the fourth set, one that everyone watching assumes has ripped the heart out of the player who let the championship slip through his fingers. Then it must involve that same player sitting down on the sideline, gathering himself, and defying everything we know about human psychology to win the fifth set anyway.

Bjorn Borg vs. John McEnroe in 1980. Rafael Nadal vs. Roger Federer in 2008. And now Novak Djokovic vs. Federer again in 2014. All of them will go down as classics, and for the same reason. In each case, both players rose to the occasion and responded to a challenge. In each case, the loser’s performance will be recalled alongside the winner’s. McEnroe’s 18-16 win in the fourth-set tiebreaker in 1980 is replayed more often than Borg’s 8-6 win in the fifth set. Federer’s backhand pass to save match point in the fourth-set tiebreaker was the spectacular summit of his loss to Nadal in 2008. And in 2014, Federer’s five-game run from 2-5 down in the fourth, punctuated by a correctly challenged ace to save a match point, brought out the roar of the fortnight from the audiences on Centre Court and Henman Hill.

“I thought the match was a good one,” said Federer, his reaction understandably understated in defeat. “I thought it had everything for fans to like. The swing of momentum in the first set, him coming back in the second, staying even in the third, all the back and forth in the fourth set, and the drama of the fifth.”

After making that list, Federer allowed himself a little more enthusiasm.

“I thought it was a great match,” he concluded, “and I enjoyed to be a part of it.”

Djokovic, also understandably, was a little happier to have been a part of it.

“Sincerely,” he said, “this has been the best-quality Grand Slam final that I’ve ever been a part of. I’ve had a longest final against Nadal in the Australian Open 2012. But quality-wise, from the first to last point, this is definitely the best match.”

“It was just incredibly high-quality tennis from both of us,” he went on. “We didn’t give too much to one another. We didn’t make a lot of unforced errors, so I think there was a lot of winners.” Federer hit 75 winners, Djokovic 68.

The tennis was crisp from the get-go. It reached an immediate peak in the first set, in which both men kept fierce hold over their serves, and neither faced a break point. In the tiebreaker, Federer saved a set point by dropping a forehand smack on the sideline, saved another with a 122-M.P.H. ace, and closed it 9-7 with a “Come on!” But while Federer had won the set, Djokovic had established something just as important; He was going to be a completely different player, and much tougher hombre, than he had been in his six previous matches.

A tense dynamic had been set. Each man tried to push the other off the baseline, and then tried to judge exactly when the right time was to mount an attack. Nothing was easy, neither man gave an inch of ground, and both braved their way forward. Federer had rushed the net effectively over the fortnight, but it was Djokovic who was more efficient there on Sunday, winning 74 percent of his points at net to Federer’s 66 percent. Djokovic won them by getting Federer on the run and attacking his one-handed backhand, but Federer couldn’t make the same kind on inroads on Nole’s two-hander. Federer may gone into that side too often. Djokovic, it seems, was waiting for it.

“I’ve seen a couple of his matches here,” Djokovic said. “He’s coming to the net more often. He’s playing down-the-line backhands more than he has been in recent years. Those were particular changes in his game that I noticed before coming to this match. I paid attention to it and was ready for it.”

The two most significant shots of the day were Federer’s serve and his return—one kept him in it, the other kept him out of it. He hit 29 aces, including five in a row, and won dozens of crucial points with it. After one of Federer’s service winners wiped away a break point, Djokovic took out his frustration by screaming at the service line. Why was it sitting right where Federer was serving the ball, every time?

“He served efficiently,” Djokovic said of Federer, “was using all the angles, was making it difficult for me to return.”

But Djokovic was having even more success in his service games, a fact that wore on Federer, who could hardly sniff a break for three sets.

“I couldn’t figure out why I wasn’t breaking Novak’s serve,” a frustrated Federer said, “or actually creating opportunities. It’s one thing not to break...but it was really not creating enough opportunities to put Novak under pressure. He was doing a good job on his serve.”

Up 3-1 in the fourth, with the title in sight, Djokovic cracked the door just enough on his serve to let Federer come storming through. Earlier in the tournament, against Marin Cilic and Grigor Dimitrov, this type of slip-up had led to rage and angst from Djokovic, which had then led to a run of lost games. Not this time. In the next game, he came out with an upbeat skip in his step, and broke right back. That would be the key to his win: Today, unlike in his loss to Nadal at the French Open a month ago, Djokovic stayed inwardly positive and outwardly controlled.

As Borg and Nadal were before him, Djokovic was put to the ultimate test in tennis—squandering a championship point at Wimbledon—and like them, he found the resilience to put it behind him.

“I could have easily lost my concentration in the fifth and just handed him the win,” Djokovic said. “But I didn’t, and that’s why this win has a special importance to me mentally. Because I managed to not just win against my opponent, but win against myself.”

In the end, Federer, after fighting uphill for nearly four hours, couldn’t fight any longer. In his final service game, he made four unforced errors. He had come within a set of his record eighth Wimbledon title, and afterward a single tear rolled down his cheek—he has now been on the winning end of two classic five-set finals here, and the losing end of two. Perhaps no one in the 92-year history of this court has brought as much quality and entertainment to it. 

“I’m happy to see that with feeling normal I can produce a performance like I did the last two weeks,” Federer said after a post-match stroll with his daughters. “That clearly makes me believe that this was just a stepping stone to many more great things in the future.”

Djokovic, of course, will see this as a stepping stone as well, both into a new, suddenly brighter season ahead, but also into his own past. 

The first time I met him, in the spring of 2007, Djokovic was a 20-year-old who hadn’t yet reached a Grand Slam final; his first would come a few months later at the U.S. Open. But that hadn’t stopped the Serb, who was invariably called “brash” in those days, from telling the world that he was going to be “the next No. 1,” a feat that would require him passing Nadal and overtaking Federer. I asked him where his confidence came from.

“My first coach, Jelena Gencic, told me I was going to be No. 1 someday,” Djokovic said, “and I believed her.”

In 2011, Djokovic won Wimbledon for the first time and fulfilled Gencic’s prediction by becoming No. 1. After the tournament, he brought the trophy to her in Serbia. A little more than a year ago, Gencic passed away, and today Djokovic pointed that same trophy to the sky and dedicated his second Wimbledon title to her. 

Gencic made Djokovic believe he could win matches like this one; it was her confidence that had made him the brash young man who had eventually conquered Federer and Nadal—she didn’t say he “might” be No. 1, she said he “was going” to be No. 1. 

In the last year and a half, Djokovic had lost some of that self-assurance in his most important matches. Before Sunday, he had failed in five straight Grand Slam finals outside of the Australian Open. When he hired Boris Becker at the start of this season, Djokovic seemed to me to be trying to find some of that old blind faith in himself; Becker had been the definition of a brash youth when he won at Wimbledon as a 17-year-old. 

By all accounts, Becker did what he was hired to do. According to London’s Sunday Times, rather than making any technical changes to Djokovic’s game, Becker tried to “instill the ability to withstand pressure [and] decide on solutions on the run....The most important factors are clarity of thought and avoidance of panic.” Those sound like a laundry list of what helped Djokovic through the roughest patches of his semifinal and final-round wins. Against Dimitrov in the semis, he had survived by starting to serve and volley in the third set, and against Federer he had avoided panic when panic seemed the only option left.

After it was over, Djokovic, who will reclaim the No. 1 ranking tomorrow, walked into the stands and wrapped Becker in a bear hug. When he got back down to the court, he pointed to the heavens and lifted his hands in a short prayer. Someone, he found out again today, was still watching over him.

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