It wasn’t the French Open final, with a career Grand Slam as the big reward. But if you wanted to come up with an achievement that will resonate in history as fully as earning all four majors might, beating Roger Federer at Wimbledon in what will be remembered as one of the greatest of all matches isn’t exactly a bad option.
Novak Djokovic exercised that option in a stirring, four-hour display by both men of everything this game can offer in the way of variety, skill, perseverance, and spirit. Djokovic won it after failing to convert a match point in the fourth set, 6-7 (7), 6-4, 7-6 (4), 5-7, 6-4. The triumph by Djokovic, a player who’s been dealing with some demons as a competitor for the better part of two years, overshadowed the remarkable stamina, focus, and strength shown by his 32-year-old rival.
If you wanted to show a visitor from Mars just how gorgeous tennis can be, just roll out tape of the first set of this confrontation. It was wonderful stuff from the start, featuring Federer demonstrating his newfound love of the approach shot and volley, and Djokovic demonstrating why his attacking, slashing game is more difficult to pursue successfully than ever before. It was Djokovic’s superb defense—with a constant, sizzling under-current of electric offense—matched against the deft touch, supreme comfort, balletic mobility, and all-around wizardry of the seven-time Wimbledon champ. And all of it hung in the balance over four excruciating hours.
There were no breaks in the first set, nor any break points. Yet each game was dramatic and any 15-30 or 30-all point forced spectators to inch closer to the edge of their seats. Only an aficionado of futbol can possibly understand how fascinating something that so often leads to nothing can be. As a result, the tiebreaker loomed even more significant than it otherwise might have been.
Neither man managed a mini-break until the 11th point. Federer started it with a terrific wide serve that had Djokovic lunging like a man grabbing for a liferope. That he managed to get his racquet on it and snap back a flat, hard return so surprised Federer that he mishandled his intended reply and plopped a weak forehand into the net. That made it 6-5, set point for the server, Djokovic. In the ensuing rally, Federer hit one of his patented inside-in forehand approaches and Djokovic pulled his backhand reply wide. 6-all.
Djokovic had another set point at 7-6, but this time it was Federer serving, and an ace eliminated the threat. The normal rotation of serve gave Federer the next point, but this time with Djokovic serving at 7-8. After a short rally, Djokovic appeared to surrender, puzzlingly hitting a backhand into the net. Set to Federer.
That set lasted 51 minutes, and the men almost evenly split a combined 34 winners and just 15 unforced errors.
Djokovic regained his composure quickly after losing the set, though. He worked his way to break point for the first time in the match in the very first game, but when he tried to end a long rally with an inside-out forehand, the ball clipped the netcord and flew out.
Djokovic clasped his hands, a look of frustration clouding his features, and looked heavenward for help.
To make matters worse, Djokovic hit the deck two points later and appeared to injure his leg. He lost that game, but shook off the injury (although he received treatment for it on the next changeover) and then snapped off a quick break of serve to take a 2-1 lead.
At that point, the question became one that Djokovic has had trouble answering in adequate fashion lately: Could he hold that lead all the way through without miring himself in a crisis? He answered in the positive, grinding out the holds until he locked up the set.
The third set was an enormous disappointment for Federer. Once again, the men went toe-to-toe, neither able to mount a major threat. But it was Federer who seemed to win the mental as well as physical battle through most of the games. He took a 5-4 lead by winning the game in 56 seconds with four consecutive aces. Djokovic held quickly, and Federer then leaped ahead again, 40-love. He would hold—but not without a momentary lapse of concentration—and was soon headed to another tiebreaker.
The men exchanged holds to 2-2, then Federer surrendered a mini-break. He got it back two points later to leave them even on serve at 4-3, Djokovic. But at that point, Federer’s forehand—so reliable early in the match—failed. He made a cross-court error to give Djokovic the critical mini-break. Federer held his next point, but then a Djokovic forehand winner lifted him to set point. He converted successfully when Federer ended a rally with a down-the-line backhand miss. Set to Djokovic.
That had to be deflating for Federer, considering how authoritatively he served throughout the entire third set. And in truth, winning that set may have been the the most significant component in Djokovic’s ultimate win. Yet even after Djokovic broke Federer in the fourth game of the fourth set, Federer found an extra dose of inspiration when Djokovic served the fifth game. He pinned down Djokovic 15-40 on the strength of a smash that he punctuated with a bellow and fist pump. Federer converted the ensuing break point with a sharp cross-court forehand winner to draw back even on serve at 2-3.
After so little progress had been made against serve by either man through the first three sets, they were now on the verge of producing three straight breaks as Djokovic threatened with a break point. Federer showed his very first sign of fatigue during the ensuing point, when he was unable to do anything with a Djokovic cross-court forehand but try a feeble forehand slice that nestled in the net. 4-2, Djokovic.
It looked grim again for Federer as the match approached the three-hour mark and Djokovic held for 5-2. But taking it one step at a time, Federer held. Then, serving for the match, Djokovic blinked.
Although the No. 1 seed fought back from losing the first two points to reach 30-all, he missed a key backhand pass to give Federer a break point, which the Swiss seized with a forehand winner hit while Djokovic, having fallen while chasing a ball cross-court, helplessly watched lying nearly flat on his back. The set was even again, but with Federer serving to stay in it. He almost didn’t live to tell the tale.
Djokovic had a match point in that 10th game, at 30-40. Federer’s ensuing serve was called out, but the man who hates Hawk-Eye deigned to challenge—and the challenge showed an ace that clipped the back of the service line. Federer went on to hold that game to level at 5-all.
By this time, the harsh discipline that had characterized the early portion of this match was gone, and while the quality of the play remained high, the wave after wave of surprises suggested that anything could, and probably would, happen. What happened is that Federer broke Djokovic and then held to snatch the set, 7-5.
And on it went, into the fifth.
Again, the men settled into rhythm, each holding for the first six games with little drama. Djokovic survived a break point in the seventh game, and Federer successfully navigated a game in which Djokovic failed to take advantage of three break points. That made it 4-all, then Djokovic jumped ahead with a strong, easy hold.
Throughout the afternoon, Federer had not been been able to rely entirely on his backhand. In fact, he had just four backhand winners (to 17 by Djokovic) at a late stage of the fifth set. The shot really let him down in the final game. He hit a rally backhand into the net to start things off. Then he shanked another one. Federer won the next point, but he followed on with a forehand error to brink on match point. Once again, Djokovic went back to the well after Federer failed to put his first serve into play. After a brief rally, Federer drove a backhand into the net.
That shortcoming should do nothing to dim the luster of Djokovic’s performance, for were it not for his acrobatic, desperate returns, Federer would not have been put in such awkward positions. Federer rained down 29 aces, put 69 percent of his first serves into play, and won 77 percent of those points. Somehow Djokovic hung in there, kept his faith, and ended up with a win that nobody on earth would call a consolation prize.
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