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2019 Top Matches, No. 1: Djokovic d. Federer, Wimbledon final
When you add up all the elements that make up a classic tennis encounter—tension, setting, stakes, history, emotion, rivalry, skill—no other match from 2019, or possibly from the past decade, could hold a candle to this one.
Published Dec 25, 2019
We're counting down the Top 10 matches of 2019 as part of Tennis Channel's Home for the Holidays. Click here to read each selection.
“As serious as a heart attack,” is how the phrase goes. Can a tennis match be as serious as 10 heart attacks? That’s probably how many your average Novak Djokovic or Roger Federer fan had over the course of the Wimbledon final. When you add up all the elements that make up a classic tennis encounter—tension, setting, stakes, history, emotion, rivalry, skill—no other match from 2019, or possibly from the past decade, could hold a candle to this one.
Djokovic-Federer brought the curtain down on 10 years of outsized achievements at the All England Club, one that began with John Isner’s 70-68 fifth-set win over Nicolas Mahut in the second round in 2010. Since that marathon, Centre Court has been the site of Andy Murray’s 2013 triumph, which ended a title drought of 77 years for British men; three of Serena Williams’ 23 major victories and two Federer’s 20; a clean sweep of 10 titles for the ATP’s Big Four; and three memorable finals between Djokovic and Federer.
This was the longest and most dramatic of those three finals, but it ended the same way as the others, with Djokovic finding a way to fend off Federer’s grass court attack, and the 15,000 fans roaring him on. The most important difference between this match and the other two was how the tiebreakers played out. In 2014 and 2015, Djokovic and Federer split four of them; this time, Djokovic won all three.
Over the course of the day, Djokovic won 14 fewer points than Federer (218 to 204), hit 40 fewer winners (94 to 54) and 15 fewer aces (25 to 10), and created five fewer break-point chances (13 to eight). Djokovic’s form swung wildly, he threw away the second set, and at times he appeared to check out entirely. He couldn’t read Federer’s serve, and failed to break it for three hours. He tightened up at 4-2 in the fifth set and gave the lead back. He was a point away from defeat twice. But when it counted most, Djokovic was impenetrable.
“It was probably the most demanding, mentally most demanding, match I was ever part of,” Djokovic said. “I had the most demanding match against Nadal in the finals of Australia [in 2012] that went almost six hours. But mentally this was different level, because of everything.”
“Everything,” indeed. This sprawling contest was, as they say, a lot. Here’s a look back at three of its most crucial moments.
Both men began at a frighteningly high level. The first set was a desperate, 12-game sprint to the tiebreaker. But in a sign of things to come, after going up 5-3 in the breaker, Federer turned around and lost four straight points, three of them on unforced errors. At the same time that Federer was faltering, Djokovic came up with the most important shot of the set: At 5-5, he ran down a short Federer backhand in time to wrist his own backhand down the line. Federer, guessing crosscourt, was taken by surprise and couldn’t recover.
In the third set, Djokovic looked out of sorts, but he gathered himself in time to reach another tiebreaker. This time, it wasn’t his good play, but Federer’s poor play that made the difference. Federer, who came to net 65 times and won 51 points there, decided to stay at the baseline at this critical stage. It didn’t work. He missed five backhands in the tiebreaker, and Djokovic closed the third set the same way he closed the first, with a point-winning down the line backhand.
Despite the disappointment of those two tiebreakers, Federer continued to be the better player for most of the fourth and fifth sets. He rallied from 2-4 down in the fifth, and kept pounding down aces without any sign of fatigue. When he broke Djokovic with a forehand pass at 7-7, and hit two more aces to reach double-championship point at 8-7, it looked like Federer was going to close out the decade in fairytale fashion, and put a glittering capstone on his career by beating his two main rivals, Rafael Nadal and Djokovic, back to back. The crowd was on its feet, the glasses of Pimm’s were raised, chants of “Ro-ger!” filled the air...and then Federer missed a forehand, Djokovic hooked a forehand pass for a winner—the same forehand pass that saved him in his semifinal against Nadal here last year—and Federer put another forehand into the net at break point. Somehow, the score was 8-8, and the fans were back in their seats.
“It was one shot away from losing the match,” Djokovic said. “It could have gone easily his way.”
If anything, the level of play only rose from there. Federer kept raining unreturnable serves and closing points with delicate volleys. Djokovic kept grinding out tough holds and counterpunching with heavy ground strokes. Then, in the climactic tiebreaker, the familiar scenario played out: Djokovic locked down, and Federer began to misfire.
Federer started the breaker with four errors and went down 4-1. Eight-time Wimbledon champion that he is, he got back to 4-3, and forced Djokovic to win it. Five-time champion that he is, Djokovic did. Hitting through his nerves, his opponent, and the crowd, he came up with two of the biggest winners of his career—first a forehand and then a sizzling down-the-line backhand—to reach championship point. When Federer’s next forehand shanked off the frame and sailed far out of court, Djokovic stayed subdued. Instead of falling to the court, he walked to the net with a crooked smile on his face, as if to say, “Look what I just pulled off.”
“It was a huge relief in the end, honestly,” Djokovic said, when asked about his non-celebration celebration. “I mean, that was one thing I promised myself coming on to the court today, that I need to stay calm and composed, because I knew the atmosphere will be as it was.”
Asked how he survived with the entire world seemingly against him, Djokovic smiled and said, “I like to transmutate it in a way. When the crowd is chanting ‘Ro-ger,’ I hear ‘No-vak.’ It sounds silly, but it is like that. I try to convince myself that it’s like that.”
If this match was a fitting way to end the decade at Wimbledon, so was the result. Djokovic showed why he was the best men’s player of the last 10 years—with his game, yes, but even more so with his resilience. The fact that he showed his nerves in this match only made his ability to hit through them more impressive.
As for Federer, he smiled during the post-match interview and, even at 37, showed no signs at all that he had just run 5600 meters over five hours. “I love Wimbledon,” he said wistfully, as he looked around Centre Court, joking that he was happy that he could be an inspiration for 37-year-olds everywhere. He had been a point away from winning his 21st major title, which would have made him very hard to catch in the current three-man Goat race that he’s running with Djokovic and Nadal. Hopefully this isn’t the last time these two face off with a major on the line. Hopefully, they’ll give us a few more heart attacks in the future.
For Federer, while losses like this sting, the moments on Centre Court are worth it.
“It’s about trying to win Wimbledon, trying to have good runs here, playing in front of such an amazing crowd in this Centre Court against players like Novak and so forth,” Federer said. “That’s what I play for.”
Djokovic ended the day, as he ended his four previous final-round wins here, by chewing on a chunk of that hallowed Centre Court turf. This piece of grass, hard-earned as it was, must have been the sweetest of all.