It seems so often that Novak Djokovic and Roger Federer bring out the best in each other. Since 2010, they have produced three five set matches at the majors, with Djokovic winning all of them dramatically. In 2010 and 2011 at the U.S. Open, the Serbian rallied from the brink of defeat in magnificent five set confrontations against the Swiss. In the former of those clashes, Djokovic saved two match points on his serve at 4-5, 15-40 in the fifth set, releasing gutsy outright winners on both match pointsone a forehand swing volley winner, the next a winning forehand ground stroke. Djokovic prevailed in that skirmish 5-7, 6-1, 5-7, 6-2, 7-5.The following year, Federer served at 5-3, 40-15 when Djokovic in the fifth set, directing his first serve wide to the Djokovic forehand. Djokovic went for broke and laced a dazzling forehand return winner crosscourt. He saved the next match point by fending off an awkward body serve, making a fine return under the circumstances. Federer erred off the forehand. Djokovic was victorious this time 6-7, 4-6, 6-3, 6-2, 7-5.
The Wimbledon final last Sunday always figured to be close. Federer had lost his serve only once in six matches en route to the championship match. Djokovic had struggled mightily in three of his six matches, edging Radek Stepanek in a tight fourth set tie-break, rallying from two sets to one down to oust Marin Cilic, and saving four set points in the fourth set of his semifinal meeting with Grigor Dimitrov. Djokovic came through in the clutch to win that contest in four sets.
The Serbian carried an additional burden into his crucial appointment against Federer a few days ago. He had suffered defeat in his last three Grand Slam tournament finals over the past two years. He had been beaten in five of his last six finals at the majors. His record in Big Four finals stood at 6 wins against 7 losses. After winning his semifinal with Dimitrov, Djokovic was admirably candid about his string of disappointments, and he vowed to do everything he could to reverse that disturbing trend.
But Federer had his own extraordinary motivation to come through in this final. He had not won a major since the 2012 Wimbledon. He will be 33 in August. Time is short. Opportunities like this will not necessarily occur often if at all in the future. Federer had lost only one set on his way to the final. He was as physically fresh for a Wimbledon final as has been in a very long time. He was primed for a strong bid to win an eighth title on the Centre Court, which would have broken a modern record he shares with Pete Sampras.
The first set of the final was fought out at an exceedingly high level. Neither man broke serve. Djokovic had one big opening that eluded him with Federer serving at 4-5, 15-30, missing off the backhand a couple of times, pressing to some degree. That set went to a tie-break. Djokovic rebounded from 0-3 and 1-4 down to take a 6-5 lead. He was at set point on his own serve, but he missed his first delivery. Federer then boldly stepped in and sent a forehand inside-in curling away with sidespin from Djokovic, who missed a running forehand. Djokovic earned a second set point at 7-6, but Federer erased that one with an ace out wide in the ad court. Federer took that set away from Djokovic with discipline and courage, prevailing 9-7 in the tie-break.
Early in the second, Djokovic found his range on the return of serve. He almost broke in the opening game, and did break for 2-1 as Federers serve-and-volley tactic backfired. Djokovic kept the return low. Federer had to volley up. That first volley landed short, and Djokovic passed him off the backhand. That one break was all Djokovic needed to seal the second set.
The standard of play was high, and it remained that way all through the third set. Both players held onto their serves sedulously all through the set to set up another tie-break. In that set, Federer served 13 of his 29 aces, including four in a row at 4-4 in a superb love game. In the tie-break, Djokovic was up 4-2 when a Federer forehand was called long. The Swiss challenged, and the replay vindicated him. The point belonged to Federer because Djokovic had no play. Now Federer served at 3-4, and his first serve was a good one. Djokovic managed to get it back, and Federer pulled a forehand inside-in wide. Djokovic had the mini-break back, and he took that tie-break 7-4, moving ahead two sets to one.
Federer seemed to be wilting physically in the early stages of the fourth set. Djokovic broke for a 3-1 lead as Federer missed an inside-out forehand, but he broke back in the following game. That was Federers first service break of the day, but Djokovic got it right back in the sixth game as Federer netted a slice forehand on the stretch. Once again, Federer looked weary. Djokovic held on for 5-2. He seemed to be closing in swiftly on his second Wimbledon singles title.
But the prideful Swiss battled back ferociously to win five games in a row to take that set. Federer held with ease for 3-5 and then Djokovic started tentatively when he served for the match in the ninth game, missing inside-in off the forehand with all the time in the world to execute that shot. He came from 0-30 to 30-30. He was two points away from the title, but he did not apply pressure; in fact, it was the other way around. Federer made an aggressive topspin backhand crosscourt approach and rushed Djokovic into an error. At break point down, Djokovic fell down on the slippery part of the court behind the baseline as he made a running forehand. Federer remained alert, going down the line off his forehand for a winner as Djokovic could not recover in time to get up.
Federer served at 4-5 and double faulted at 30-15. Djokovic won the next point to arrive at match point, but Federer saved it with an ace. That serve was called out but he wisely challenged, and the replay confirmed that the ball hit the service line. Federer held on for 5-5, and Djokovic was unreeling. He lost his serve again, and a confident Federer held at 15 to seal the set. With that tough stand, Federer moved into the fifth set with considerable momentum. Djokovic left the court, returned to the locker room, and tried to collect his thoughts and deal with the shock of needing to play one more set to secure a title he seemed bound to win in four.
The two players stood level at 3-3 in the fifth set when Djokovic found himself down break point. Unhesitatingly, Djokovic ventured forward behind an inside-out forehand. Federer tried to chip the passing shot at his opponents feet, to make Djokovic hit an awkward volley off a no pace shot. But the passing shot went into the net. Djokovic held on for 4-3 and then had Federer at 15-40 in the eighth game. But Federer was fighting furiously, ceding no ground. He served wide to the forehand to elicit a return error, then thumped a forehand winner off a short return. Djokovic garnered a third break point, but Federer took that one away with a magical piece of business, making an exquisite half volley pickup to bail himself out.
Federer held on for 4-4, but the match was deep into its fourth hour and the older man was losing physical steam again. Djokovic was down 0-15 at 4-4 but he aced Federer for 15-15 and took three more points in a row for the hold. Serving to stay in the match at 4-5, Federer got only one first serve in and his backhand deteriorated. He netted a slice off that side for 0-15, totally miss-hit a topspin backhand for 0-30, took the next point, but then missed long with a running forehand. Down double match point at 15-40, Federer sent one last backhand into the net. Djokovic was the victor 6-7 (7), 6-4, 7-6 (4), 5-7, 6-4. It had lasted three hours and 56 minutes.
To be sure, it was a great tennis match, but not an epic. The last two sets were not of the same high caliber as the first three. Djokovic got tight; Federer became fatigued. In most epic contests, the standard is perhaps highest in the fourth and fifth sets. That was true of the legendary Rosewall-Laver 1972 clash at Dallas, with both the fourth and fifth sets settled in tie-breaks. In the Borg-McEnroe 1980 Wimbledon final, the high water moment was the fourth set tie-break that McEnroe won 18-16, saving five match points in that magnificent sequence. The fifth set went 8-6 to Borg. When Rafael Nadal beat Federer in the 2008 Wimbledon final, the battle peaked in the fourth and fifth sets, with Federer saving two match points in the fourth set tie-break, and Nadal coming through 9-7 in the fifth.
But clearly this was a beautifully played tennis match. To my way of thinking, Djokovic was decidedly better from the backcourt than Federer. He was producing more penetrating shots off both sides, and both the pace and depth of the Serbians shots was largely too much for Federer. Federer knew he could not outhit Djokovic on this occasion so he bided his time, looped his forehand frequently, and went to the sliced backhand as often as possible. He was trying to break up Djokovics rhythm with his soft backhand slices, and it worked periodically. But, by and large, it was not that effective. Djokovic was disciplined and he handled that slice quite well.
Federer served-and-volleyed 36 times in the match and won 78% of those advances to the net. That was impressive, as was his success rate in winning 72 of 103 points when he approached the net. But his chip-charge tactics off Djokovics second serve were mostly not successful. Djokovic has an underrated second serve that kicks up high and is almost always deep. Federer could not make his chips with enough bite on them.
In the end, Djokovic played this match largely on his own terms. He was a worthy champion. Federers comeback was spirited and admirable, his perseverance remarkable, his level of play outstanding. He did not give this match away; he lost to a better player. Remember that Federer broke Djokovic thrice in the match, but all three were in the fourth set. In four of the five sets, he did not break, and in that span the Swiss had only two break point chances. That was because Djokovic held the upper hand in most of the rallies. The Serbian served magnificently and backed it up beautifully. He kept Federer guessing the whole match, and caught the Swiss off guard time and again by serving to the forehand in both the deuce and ad courts.
Djokovic deserved to seal the crown. He cast aside the demons of so many major finals lost, and won in the end with grace and perspicacity.
KVITOVA AND HER MASTERPIECE
Petra Kvitova had not been back in a major final since she won Wimbledon so convincingly in 2011 with a straight set dissection of Maria Sharapova. This gifted left-hander is a shotmaker supreme, a woman who can hit winners from anywhere on the court off either side, a competitor who knows how to make the most of herself when she is in good form.
The problem for Kvitova is her tendency to beat herself with streams of errors. Day to day, week to week, tournament in and tournament out, it is not always easy to figure out which Petra Kvitova is going to show up. She is an enigma, a champion whose talent knows no bounds, but a player who can get down on herself at the blink of an eye. It can be agonizing to watch her play when she is devoid of confidence, when her game is not up to par.
But when she is on, when she is timing the ball well off the ground, serving with clarity and conviction, and concentrating with full intensity and unbridled optimism, Kvitova is a great tennis player and a first rate champion. Against the Canadian Eugenie Bouchard in the final, Kvitova produced a masterpiece of a match. She was firing away effortlessly off both wings, sprinkling the court with outright winners, leaving the enormously capable Bouchard confounded.
Kvitova crushed Bouchard, hitting no fewer than 28 winners in two short sets, making only 12 unforced errors, pulling off one astonishing shot after another. Kvitovas forehand has long been her more lethal shot, and she takes control off that side in the vast majority of her winning matches. But in this duel with Bouchard, Kvitova was just as impressive off her backhand. The angles she created off that side were a sight to behold.
Kvitova took apart Bouchard 6-3, 6-0 in 55 minutes. This was the shortest Wimbledon final since Martina Navratilova demolished Andrea Jaeger 6-0, 6-3 in the 54 minute 1983 final. The shortest of all Wimbledon womens finals during the Open Era was Billie Jean Kings masterful 6-0, 6-1 win over Evonne Goolagong in 1975.
King was so overjoyed with that performance that she announced she would retire from singles, although she did elect to return and played on into the eighties. Kvitovas performance was similar in some ways because she was at the very top of her game in every respect. She made an extraordinary opponent look ordinary.
The recipe was uncomplicated. Kvitova was striking quickly in almost every rally. On her own serve, she mixed up her delivery cleverly, going to the forehand on 55% of the points and to the backhand 45% of the time. Kvitova won 82% of her first serve points and connected with 68% of her first serves in the match. She lost her serve only once, but she was up two breaks and ahead 5-2 when that happened. Kvitovas returning was breathtaking. She sent most of them deep down the middle, and Bouchard tried in vain to stand her ground, hugging the baseline, attempting to flick those balls back. Yet Bouchard could not get enough depth or pace on her responses, and Kvitova was all over the second shot, ripping winners left and right, opening up the court time and again. Her angles with the crosscourt backhand were phenomenal.
In plain and simple terms, Kvitova was in the zone. It was the best tennis match she has ever played, and it might well be that she will never quite replicate it again. But the hope here is that Kvitova fully commits herself to a concerted campaign to win more majors over the next couple of years. She has two now, taken three years apart on the same Centre Court of Wimbledon. But she is worthy of at least two or three more. It will be up to Kvitova to work unwaveringly toward that goal.
BOUCHARDS RUN TO THE FINAL
Although Bouchard was obliterated in her final round clash with Kvitova, the fact remains that she had a terrific tournament and built on what she had done in Melbourne and Paris at the first two majors of the year. Bouchard was a semifinalist at both the Australian and French Opens. She was not far away from beating Sharapova in the penultimate round at Roland Garros.
At Wimbledon, Bouchard did not lose a set until her final round loss to Kvitova. The No. 13 seed was awfully good when it counted. Of the 12 sets she played on her way to the final, Bouchard won two in tie-breaks and four more at 7-5. She was sturdy and unyielding in these tight sets. In the fourth round, she accounted for Alize Cornet, one round after Cornet had stunned Serena Williams. In the quarterfinals, Bouchard knocked out Angelique Kerber in straight sets, and then in the semifinals she defeated No. 3 seed and French Open finalist Simona Halep.
Bouchard was overpowered and overwhelmed by Kvitova in the final, but never lost her poise. Here is a player who knows what she is doing on every surface. She is also a formidable match player with excellent court sense. She became the first Canadian ever to reach a major final. At 20, her best tennis is well ahead of her and of us. Bouchard now resides at No. 7 in the world after her stirring Wimbledon fortnight.
To be sure, she has made some enemies behind the scenes with her zealousness and combative nature. Bouchard is, however, not out to win a popularity contest. In a couple of years, she just might become the best woman player in the world.
RAONIC MAKES FIRST MAJOR SEMINAL, AS DOES DIMITROV
Milos Raonic has one of the two or three best serves in tennis. He is a player who has improved markedly, working assiduously on his backhand, turning his forehand into a larger and more versatile weapon, looking to assert himself in the upper echelons of the game. Raonic had a very good run at Wimbledon, all the way to his first semifinal at a Grand Slam event. That was commendable. He had a four set win over Kei Nishikori in the round of 16.
Raonic, of course, was spared a duel with Nadal when Nick Kyrgios upset the Spaniard in the round of 16. Raonic dealt ably with Kyrgios in the quarterfinals. That gave the Canadian a chance to confront Roger Federer on the Centre Court in the semifinals. He seemed to have high hopes heading into that assignment. It was never going to be easy against a revitalized Federer on his favorite court, but many in the cognoscenti believed Raonic would at least make it compelling and perhaps stretch the Swiss close to his limits.
But Raonic was not ready, and he was taken apart in straight sets. He played a bad opening game of the match in my view, losing his serve, double faulting at 30-30. Federer was raring to go, and Raonic clearly was not. He lost that set predictably after the opening game lapse, and then was broken at 4-4 in both the second and third sets. Raonic served poorly and made too many costly mistakes in those two critical service games. He did not make it to even one tie-break, which was indefensible.
After the match, Raonic was very hard on himself, as well he should have been. He now is situated at No. 6 in the world, and has worked hard to gain that career high status. But Raonic let himself down in many ways with the manner of his loss to Federer. He did not impose himself. He played a bad service game in every set. He returned abysmally.
Having said all that, I still believe Raonic can keep climbing the ladder. He just cant afford to play that way again when he has a chance to reach a major final.
Dimitrov was inspired over this fortnight. He took out Alexandr Dolgopolov in a five set match, and ousted a distracted and seemingly indifferent Andy Murray in straight sets. Dimitrov was down a set and 3-1 to Djokovic before he found his range and his game. He took that second set, lost the third in a tie-break as Djokovic kept venturing forward, and then came very close to reaching a fifth set. Djokovic saved one set point on his serve at 4-5 in the fourth set, and then rescued himself from 3-6 down in the tie-break to get the win, saving three more set points in that stretch.
Dimitrov was demoralized after the loss, but he acquitted himself well. He has the complete package: a terrific serve, find groundstrokes off both sides, and good feel on the volley. He has steadily improved this season, and this was a good step in the right direction for Dimitrov at Wimbledon.
Stepping out onto the Centre Court for the first time to face one of the sports icons named Rafael Nadal, the swashbuckling Nick Kyrgios of Australia seemed oblivious to his surrounding or the situation. He was playing a man who has won Wimbledon twice, and someone who had just secured a ninth French Open champion. Nadal has captured at least one major for ten years in a row. Kyrgios was simply a wildcard enjoying a remarkable ride through the games showcase event.
Kyrgios is 19, exuberant, a big man for his age who is arresting to watch because his serve is so explosive and effortless, and the rest of his game is so exhilarating. He is a personality and a character, and his aggressive style of play was making life difficult for Nadal.
Kyrgios took the first set in a tie-break as Nadal contributed some surprising unforced errors. Nadal took the second set and had a set point at 5-6 in the third, but the Australian calmly delivered a 122 MPH first serve down the T, eliciting a netted return from the Spaniard. In the third set tie-break, Kyrgios remained bold and Nadal got exceedingly tight. Despite a 5-4 lead on serve, Nadal lost that sequence. Kyrgios broke for 3-1 in the fourthhis only break of the matchand never looked back.
Clearly, Nadal was under immense strain because Kyrgios served so potently and kept the Spaniard off balance during the rallies. Kyrgios has a big forehand and his backhand is sporadically dangerous. He is not afraid to go down the line off that side.
Above all else, Kyrgios has a champions mentality. He saved nine match points against Richard Gasquet in the third round. He stood up to the No. 2 seed on the Centre Court, fought with vigor and panache, and never blinked when Nadal tried to take control of the match. Kyrgios is going to be a front line player someday. He is a fine athlete. He is a fighter. He will be great for the game.
Serena Williams was my pick to win the Wimbledon singles title this year, but for the third major in a row she did not make it past the fourth round. The Frenchwoman Alize Cornet came from behind to stop Serena 1-6, 6-3, 6-4 in a third round duel. Williams was down two breaks in the final set and got one of them back, but ultimately her nerves did not hold up. Cornet was strategically savvy and she outmaneuvered Williams in a number of ways, drawing her into the net, pushing her wide, making Serena uncomfortable in the latter stages.
It was startling to witness Williams getting outplayed again in a Grand Slam event, at a place where she has won the singles five times.
But the larger shock was when Serena walked out on court for a second round doubles match last week with her sister Venus against Kristina Barrois and Stefanie Voegele. The sisters retired when they were down 3-0 in the first set, but the perplexing part of it all was why Serena even appeared in public. In her service game, she could not even reach the net with most of her deliveries. She served one ball that looked more like a lob. It was bizarre and unsettling.
Perhaps Serena was on some medication for a virus and felt weak and disoriented. But her behavior in serving that way seemed unprofessional and inexplicable. Later in the summer, she will inevitably be asked for an explanation of what happened in the doubles that day at Wimbledon. Meanwhile, we can only wonder why she did not realize that she was in no condition to compete on a tennis court. Something was terribly wrong, but we may never know why Williams embarrassed herself so unnecessarily.
<Steve Flink has been reporting on tennis since 1974. He has been a columnist for tennischannel.com since 2007. You can purchase Steve’s latest book “The Greatest Tennis Matches of All Time” here.
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