The War of 13-12—Djokovic's best v. Federer came when it mattered most

The War of 13-12—Djokovic's best v. Federer came when it mattered most

Novak Djokovic’s five-hour win over Roger Federer was a fitting end to a decade of historic achievements at Wimbledon.

“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 during Djokovic’s five-hour, 7-6 (5), 1-6, 7-6 (4), 4-6, 13-12 (3) win over Federer in Sunday's Wimbledon final. If that 13-12 score looks like a typo, that’s because this was the first singles match in Wimbledon’s 142-year history to finish with a tiebreaker in the deciding set.

Which is fitting, because this match also brought the curtain down on a decade of outsized and historic 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. The best players of this era keep finding ways to top themselves, and take their rivalries to new heights.

This was the longest and most dramatic of the three Djokovic-Federer finals, but it ended in the same nerve-wracking fashion as the others, with Djokovic finding a way to hold off Federer’s grass court attack, and the 15,000 fans roaring him on, just long enough to squeak out a tense victory. 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; on Sunday, 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). His form swung wildly, and he essentially threw away the second set. 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, and he was oddly subdued throughout.

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” is probably too much to cover in a single article on this sprawling epic, so I’ll focus on the moments that mattered most, the three tiebreakers and Federer’s two match points.

Djokovic and Federer began the match 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 superior 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 in anticipation, chants of “Ro-ger!” filled the air...and then Federer missed a forehand, and 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...In these kind of moments, I just try to never lose self-belief, just stay calm, just focus on trying to get the ball back, return, which wasn’t serving me very well today.”

If anything, the level of play only improved down the homestretch. 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 and historic tiebreaker, the same scenario played out: Djokovic became more solid, and Federer began to misfire.

Federer started the breaker with four errors and went down 4-1. Eight-time Wimbledon champion that he is, Federer 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 his frame sailed far out of the 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 world seemingly against him, Djokovic smiled and said, “I like to transmutate it in a way. When the crowd is chanting ‘Roger,’ I hear ‘Novak.’ 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 5,600 meters over five hours.

“I love Wimbledon,” he said 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 GOATs 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.