As reporters were scurrying around Wimbledon not long after Novak Djokovic had almost mystically captured his fifth crown on Centre Court over Roger Federer, I was asked by Christopher Clarey of the New York Times where this contest should be placed among the greatest tennis matches of all time. I wrote a book on that very topic several years ago, and I told Clarey that, given the size of the occasion and the stature of the two finalists, and looking at the match in terms of sustained excellence, the Djokovic-Federer clash belongs somewhere among the top 10 ever. It was a dandy in so many ways, suspenseful from beginning to end, valiantly fought on both sides of the net, demonstrably revealing the staunch character and durability of two champions in search of the most prestigious prize in tennis. To be sure, it was a battle that will have lasting implications for both players, for students of the sport’s history and for a multitude of fans who spent nearly five hours immersed in a spectacle they will remember for the rest of their lives.
In my view, this match will live on irrevocably in the hearts and minds of all who saw it primarily because of the fifth set. It took the match into another realm altogether. While Federer had served prodigiously across the first four sets, Djokovic was having an abysmal day returning. Most alarming for the world No. 1 was his inability to execute on relatively standard second-serve returns. He missed far too many and was not handling the high backhand return with anything like his customary authority. That he was still in the match despite this glaring deficiency was a testament to his mindset and match-playing acumen.
The fifth set had all of the elements—drama, shotmaking brilliance, fluctuating fortunes, astonishing courage from both combatants, and Wimbledon's first ever 12-12 singles tiebreak. It lasted two hours and two minutes, and a memorable confrontation worthy of a Wimbledon final turned into something transcendent. Sitting in the press section located opposite the Royal Box, I glanced across on multiple occasions to see the reactions of the Federer and Djokovic entourages. Even from that far away, it was strikingly apparent that the people closest to the two gallant players were dying a thousand deaths. At times, Mirka Federer could not even bear to watch. Marian Vajda was understandably tormented. Clusters of supporters from both camps were cheering animatedly every time their player was down at their end of the court, rising in unison and applauding unabashedly.
Djokovic drew first blood in the fifth, breaking for a 4-2 lead. Victory seemed as if it might be around the corner for the 32-year-old. But he was very apprehensive in the seventh game and handed the break right back to Federer.
What transpired thereafter was sport at its very best. The two stayed on serve until 7-7, when Djokovic, at 30-40, failed to do enough with his crosscourt forehand approach shot off a short return from Federer. The Swiss passed him cleanly crosscourt, breaking for 8-7. Serving for the match, Federer soared to 40-15 behind back-to-back aces.
The eight-time champion was at double match point on the court he reveres above all others. But he missed his first serve, and Djokovic’s second serve forehand return down the middle backed Federer up enough to cause a forehand error. On the second match point, 40-30, Djokovic chipped a forehand return safely into court and Federer approached tamely off his forehand to his opponent’s forehand. That approach lacked depth, conviction or direction. He may have felt that simply coming forward at that crucial moment would provoke an error from Djokovic. But Djokovic passed him easily, and then coaxed a couple of forehand errors from Federer to improbably break back for 8-8.
Until 11-11, the server dominated. Djokovic reached 40-0 in the 23rd game, but what appeared to be an easy hold would be anything but. He would save two break points in that critical game, making a surprise move in behind a forehand down the line to rush Federer into a backhand slice pass error, then coming forward ably to put away an overhead. After four deuces, Djokovic held on. Soon, they were in the historic tie-break.
For the third time in the match, it was Djokovic who was implacable in a tiebreaker. He rolled to a 4-1 lead, lost the next two points on Federer’s serve, then moved to 6-3 with a forehand winner followed by an impeccably measured and gutsy down-the-line backhand winner. Down triple match point, Federer totally miss-hit a forehand, giving Djokovic a 7-6 (5), 1-6, 7-6 (4), 4-6, 13-12 (3) won. Djokovic played all three tie-breaks like a champion while Federer had faltered flagrantly off the ground. One man was clear-eyed and utterly purposeful; the other one blinked.
Making it all the more remarkable was this: it was the third time in his career that Djokovic had rallied from double match point down against Federer. It happened in the 2010 US Open semifinals: Djokovic served at 4-5, 15-40 in the fifth set, and saved both match points with dazzling winners. Then again, the following year, in the same round, on the same court: Federer served for the match at 5-3 and led 40-15, but Djokovic’s screaming forehand return winner saved him. He wiped away another with a fine return off a body serve and was victorious again.
Making this astonishing turnaround even more jarring for Federer was that he was the first man since 1948 to lose a Wimbledon men’s final after having at least one match point. In Grand Slam tournaments, Federer has now lost six matches after holding match points. Djokovic is responsible for half of those defeats. That is not insignificant, nor is it an accident of fate. Djokovic is a singularly steely competitor when his back is to the wall. His refusal to surrender when he has no business winning is an ineffable trait. It is high time that more authorities laud this fellow more comprehensively for his unshakable spirit.
Federer’s capacity to come through when it counts is beyond dispute. He has been victorious in 20 of 31 major finals. But no great champion in the history of the game has been beaten so often after standing on the edge of victory. That is what makes Federer so fascinating. He has achieved beyond his largest dreams, and yet he can be so vulnerable to inexplicable defeats. As my friend and resident tennis expert John Martini wrote in an email, “Djokovic is the toughest mentally; Nadal the toughest physically; Federer the most gifted, but the most fragile.”
In any event, I would put two other Wimbledon finals above this epic on my list of the greatest matches. At the top remains Nadal's win over Federer in the 2008 final, when every set was hard fought and exceedingly close. Nadal won that match 6-4, 6-4, 6-7 (5), 6-7 (9), 9-7. The Borg-McEnroe 1980 Wimbledon final was also superior, in my opinion, with the Swede coming through 1-6, 7-5, 6-3, 6-7 (16), 8-6. That meeting was essentially defined by the incomparable fourth set tie-break. McEnroe had already saved two match points prior to that, but he erased five more in that overtime session. It was a riveting, majestic account all the way through.
The Djokovic-Federer skirmish will be celebrated primarily for its magnificent fifth set, but its first three hours did not compare to the last two. But it is superior to another Federer marathon on Centre Court: the 2009 final at the All England Club against Andy Roddick. In that final Federer dropped the first set, saved four set points in the second set tie-break, and served a personal record 50 aces and eventually getting the job done, 5-7, 7-6 (6), 7-6 (5), 3-6, 16-14.
That final was a high-quality duel, but it was predominantly a server’s contest. (Federer served 50 aces in all.) So I would put Djokovic-Federer above that match on my Wimbledon list.
Nonetheless, Sunday's Djokovic-Federer makes my top three Wimbledon men’s list, and is top ten among all matches, period. The way both players performed down the stretch was almost unimaginable. Federer did everything but win it; Djokovic refused to lose it; the fans savored it all. Perhaps it is not coincidental that so many of the best matches I have ever seen in person have taken place at the game’s showcase event.