“It could have easily gone his way,” Novak Djokovic said after beating Roger Federer by the most evanescent of margins at Wimbledon on Sunday. Those words could be used to describe a lot of tennis matches, of course; this is a sport where it’s rare for any player to win more than 60 percent of the points played, even in a lopsided result, and where it’s not uncommon for a player to lose a match despite having won most of the points. Just ask Federer, who won 218 points to Djokovic’s 204, but walked away with the runner-up plate.
It’s a game of inches, they say, and never has the cliché been more appropriate. Federer led 8-7, 40-15 in the fifth set, double championship point. A slightly stronger serve by the Swiss here, a slightly weaker return by the Serb there, and the day would have ended differently, and would be remembered differently—its entire meaning would have changed.
The margin between victory and defeat, glory and devastation, was so vanishingly thin in this match that any discussion of why one player won and why the other lost quickly began to sound absurd. It was a feeling, I thought, that was reflected in Djokovic’s non-celebration celebration, and in both players’ muted on-court interviews. More than anything else, after five hours of being locked in mortal, nerve-wracking combat, Djokovic and Federer looked shell-shocked. “What just happened?” seemed to be the question that hung over Centre Court.
So what did happen? As you’re watching a match, there’s no time to hit rewind and examine any single point or shot. The same goes for the players, who can’t afford to sulk, or even think. As Federer said, “You always try to push yourself to see things on the better side”—even when you’ve just watched two championship points at Wimbledon come and go.
But considering how important those two points were, they’re worth a second look. It’s possible they could end up determining who comes out on top in the men’s Grand Slam-title race currently being run by Federer, Djokovic and Rafael Nadal. A Federer victory would have put him three Slams ahead of the 33-year-old Nadal, and six ahead of the 32-year-old Djokovic, a formidable lead in either case.
Re-watching the 8-7 game, and the two games leading up to it, what’s striking is how much of a roll Federer was on right up to his first match point. He had broken a tight-as-a-drum Djokovic at 2-4 to get back into the fifth set, and the momentum from that break still seemed to be with him when he served at 6-7. If anything, Djokovic was the one who was struggling to rise to the occasion at that stage.
Federer opened the 6-7 game with two aces for 30-0, and held with a smoothly aggressive forehand winner. At 7-7, Djokovic went up 30-0 on his own serve, and then his forehand inexplicably broke down. He hit one long, another one wide, and at break point, he left a forehand approach sitting up in the middle of the court, begging to be ripped. Federer obliged, swinging a forehand pass crosscourt for the break. The crowd, including Federer’s player box, leapt to its feet as one. Federer himself showed no emotion at all, either after the point or during the changeover.
Serving at 8-7, Federer missed a forehand long on the first point, and made an ill-advised challenge—the ball was well out. But if that was a product of nerves, he quickly shrugged them off. Djokovic missed another forehand wide to make it 15-15, and then Federer did what he’d been doing all day, all tournament, all career: he hit two seemingly effortless aces down the T. The second one, at 30-15, had a little extra sidespin that took it just beyond Djokovic’s outstretched racquet. Surely now the championship had been won, and the Pimm’s could flow.
At 40-15, Federer tried another flat serve down the T; it hit the tape and popped up and back onto his side of the net. It was on his second serve that the first sign of tension showed. The ball landed well inside the sideline and sat up in Djokovic’s strike zone; it was not unlike the Federer serve that Djokovic rocketed for an all-or-nothing return winner when he was down match point at the 2011 US Open—probably the most famous shot of the decade.
This time, Djokovic played it safer, but the result was just as effective. He hit a solid forehand up the middle that rushed Federer. For much of the match, Federer had taken this return and redirected it into the open court with his forehand. This time he didn’t have time to get his feet completely set, and he ended up floating an inside-out forehand into the alley
At 40-30, Federer went up the T with his serve again, and again missed his target. Djokovic didn’t have to stretch far to block a forehand return into the middle of the court. Federer routinely punishes returns like this, especially if he has time to hit a forehand; this time all the sting went out of his racquet. His approach landed short, near the middle of the court, and gave Djokovic plenty of time to set up for a pass. Like Federer in the previous game, Djokovic hooked it back crosscourt for a winner.
Watching in real time, I had the impression that this had been the type of free-swinging shot that Djokovic will nonchalantly crack when he has nothing left to lose. On second viewing, I was amazed at how artful the shot was, how much shape he put on it, how high it arced before touching down. Usually it’s Federer we credit with hitting more elegant shots than are strictly necessary. This time it was Djokovic’s turn to make a major-title-saving pass even better than it needed to be.
Federer’s nerves had manifested themselves not in errors, but in shots that were played too safely, that hung in the air too long, and that gave Djokovic more time to react than he’d had all match. At deuce, Federer flipped a tame backhand into the middle of the court; Djokovic responded with a strong forehand. At break point, Federer put too much air under his forehand, which looped into the middle of the court; again, Djokovic struck aggressively, and forced a forehand error from Federer. The score was 8-8, and the air was out of the building.
To his credit, Federer regrouped.
“I mean, really, look, I was still happy to be at 8-all, 9-all,” he said. “I don’t remember what it was. You try to see the positives, you try to take it as a good thing, I guess, that you’re not down a break, or that the match isn’t over yet.”
Perhaps “happy” was an exaggeration, but Federer did a good job of not unraveling completely, pushing the match to a deciding tiebreaker, and bouncing back from a 1-4 deficit in the breaker to 3-4. It was on the next two points that the title was finally won. Serving at 4-3, Djokovic managed to do what Federer couldn’t at 8-7: He hit through the court. Djokovic had had his own bouts with nerves in this match; his level had plummeted in the second set, and he had visibly tightened up while serving at 4-2 in the fifth. But in the end, he hit a forehand winner for 5-3, and a down-the-line backhand winner, his bravest shot of the day, for 6-3.
“In the important moments,” Djokovic said, “all three tiebreaks I guess, if I can say so, I found my best game.”
In 2014, I was in Centre Court to see Djokovic defy Federer and the loudest crowd I’d ever heard at Wimbledon in five sets. in 2015, I was in Arthur Ashe Stadium to see Djokovic defy Federer and an even louder crowd in four tight sets. When those matches were over and Federer had come up a shot or two short, the sense of deflation in the arena was palpable. I wondered whether the fan support, and the cascades of noise descending on him, might be a burden at times for Federer. He’s not a rah-rah guy. He doesn’t flap his arms or throw his first in the air to rev up the audience, and he doesn’t demand more noise and energy from his player box. Federer is a tennis individualist of the old school, and that’s a lot of hope, and pressure, to put on one individual’s head.
Of course, Federer has won hundreds of matches with the crowd fully behind him. The biggest difference when he plays Djokovic is...Djokovic, and his uniquely resilient game. By now, Djokovic has learned to cope with the pro-Federer crowds, and to use them as fuel when he can—when they chant “Ro-ger!” he says he hears “No-vak!” Djokovic really does it go it alone in these matches, like few tennis players ever have. Someday, hopefully, he’ll get his due for being able to fend off not just his legendary opponents, but entire stadiums full of their fans.
This time, over the course of five hours, Djokovic and Federer were separated by a couple of feet—the difference between Federer’s short forehand approach on his second match point at 8-7, and the powerful backhand winner that Djokovic hit to reach his first match point in the fifth-set tiebreaker. It might, as Djokovic said, so easily have gone the other way. But then that’s life, and that’s tennis.