WIMBLEDON—One of the most fascinating and sometimes perplexing things about watching Novak Djokovic moving through the heart of his prime and collecting the highest honors in tennis pertains to how he conducts himself on the battlefield, the way he wanders in and out of treacherous corners, and the propensity he has to leave his anxieties behind him and regain his emotional equilibrium. His final round contest today against Roger Federer was a case in point. Djokovic seemed ready to take complete control of the proceedings when he won the first set and reached set point seven times in the second set.
And yet, he did not exploit his openings when he was on the verge of that two set lead. Federer stymied him there, took the set, roused the Centre Court crowd enormously, and left the Serbian exasperated in the process. Djokovic got entirely too tight late in that second set, and that apprehension could have cost him the match. He was well aware of what he had done. At the changeover between the second and third sets, he was looking up at his support team in the stands, expressing his anger freely, and letting off steam as he reflected on a golden opportunity missed. Djokovic was infuriated. He was disappointed in himself, knowing full well that he could have been in a virtually insurmountable position.
But releasing his rage and being honest with himself did Djokovic a world of good. He left his distress behind him, regained his focus and quiet intensity, and distanced himself from Federer convincingly, pulling away to win deservedly 7-6 (1), 6-7 (10), 6-4, 6-3 in two hours and 56 minutes. Djokovic defended his title, ousted the Swiss Maestro for the second year in a row in the title round, secured his third Wimbledon championship, and captured a ninth major altogether. It was not a bad day’s work for the best player in the world, who won his sixth title of 2015, and his second Grand Slam event of the season. With this hard earned triumph, Djokovic takes another significant step historically. On the all-time list of men’s champions at the majors, Djokovic broke a tie he shared with luminaries like Jimmy Connors, Andre Agassi, Ivan Lendl, Fred Perry and Ken Rosewall.
Now the Serbian is in eighth place behind Federer (17), Rafael Nadal and Pete Sampras (14), Roy Emerson (12), Bjorn Borg and Rod Laver (11), and Bill Tilden with 10. The feeling grows that Djokovic will collect at least five more majors before he is through, and it is entirely possible that he could do even better than that. How he fares in the pursuit of the premier prizes will depend largely on how he performs from this point forward in the finals of Grand Slam events. By virtue of his triumph over Federer in the final of the world’s most prestigious event, Djokovic owns a 9-8 record in major finals. Across the next couple of years, he needs to improve that percentage, and the feeling grows that he probably will.
Be that as it may, let’s examine what led to Djokovic’s victory over Federer. The win was an important one in many ways because Djokovic evens his career series with Federer, and now stands at 20-20 against the Swiss. At the majors, Djokovic leads 7-6. Strictly in Grand Slam tournament finals, Djokovic holds a 2-1 edge over the Swiss.
Having lost to Stan Wawrinka in the French Open final last month, Djokovic could not afford another final round loss on a lofty stage. But he soon found himself in an awkward predicament because Federer commenced the battle robustly. The way he was performing at the outset against Djokovic, I was reminded of something Arthur Ashe said when we sat together at the 1982 Wimbledon final between Jimmy Connors and John McEnroe. Right before the match, Ashe told me, “Look out. Connors is going to come out here like a house on fire!” He was right, of course. Connors came out of the gates blasting way freely. Ultimately, Connors won the match in five sets.
In the Djokovic-Federer final on the Centre Court this time around, Federer was in fine fiddle at the outset. He was composed in every way, and seemingly very confident. Here was a man who had won 89 of his 90 service games in the tournament heading into this duel with Djokovic. He was primed to carry on with that dominance on his delivery. Djokovic sensed that he was in for a hard skirmish. Federer opened with a love game on serve, including an ace for 40-0. Djokovic held on for 1-1 at 30 before Federer did the same thing in the third game. But Federer looked far more convincing in the early stages.
After Djokovic held for 2-2, Federer turned up the volume of his talent and went on a spree. He held at love for 3-2, missing only one first serve in that fifth game. Then he broke Djokovic at love, making the Serbian largely uncomfortable with his variety of returns, counter-attacking beautifully. Federer disrupted Djokovic’s rhythm brilliantly and broke serve at love to lead 4-2. He had collected eight points in a row, and knew that with two holds from that juncture he could secure the first set. But Djokovic refused to let that happen.
With Federer serving in the seventh game, Djokovic broke back immediately. The Swiss sent a routine backhand drop volley wide on the first point to fall behind 0-15. He took the next point for 15-15 but Djokovic moved to 15-30 by taking control of the rally and driving a crosscourt forehand into the clear. It was 15-30. Federer then miss-hit a backhand wide for 15-40. He saved one break point but at 30-40 he could not save a second. Federer seemed to have the net covered well, but Djokovic kept his backhand down the line passing shot low and near the sideline, coaxing a forehand volley error from the Swiss.
They were back on serve. Djokovic held at love for 4-4, releasing two aces in that game. But, at 5-6, Djokovic confronted another crisis of sorts. At 30-15, he went for a big second serve down the T at 115 MPH and double faulted. Federer benefitted from a Djokovic backhand error, and that gave the Swiss a set point. Djokovic erased it emphatically with an excellent first serve out wide, drawing an errant backhand crosscourt return from Federer. The seven time Wimbledon champion garnered a second set point opportunity, and once more Djokovic got out of jeopardy with an unstoppable first serve to the backhand. He held on for 6-6 to set up a tie-break.
The first point of that sequence was critical. Federer sent an angled backhand drop volley acutely crosscourt, but Djokovic read that play intuitively, steering a backhand down the line past his adversary for a winner. Djokovic had the quick mini-break, and made it count, racing to 3-0. After Federer closed the gap to 3-1 for the Serbian, Djokovic played a superb point, keeping Federer on the defensive, moving him around skillfully, concluding that point with an inside in forehand winner.
Djokovic was utterly in control at 4-1. A pair of errant backhands from Federer made it 6-1, and then the Swiss double faulted. Djokovic had taken the tie-break seven points to one and had moved out in front after twice being in serious binds during the set. At 2-2 in the second set, Djokovic led 40-15 but Federer persistently kept himself in that game. The 33-year-old had two break points, but Djokovic cancelled one with a deep crosscourt forehand that was unanswerable, and saved the next with a forehand inside in winner. He held on for 3-2 with a forehand down the line winner after defending steadfastly against a determined and aggressive Federer. Djokovic looked up at his coach Boris Becker and his wife in the stands and gave them an uninhibited fist pump.
The two players kept holding comfortably from there. At 4-4, Djokovic held at 15, and then in the tenth game Federer seemed to waver after starting off with an ace. At 30-30, he served a double fault. Djokovic was at set point, and he made a respectable second serve return. Federer replied with a crosscourt forehand that was nothing out of the ordinary, but Djokovic inexplicably drove a crosscourt forehand long on the run. He was under no duress when he hit that shot, yet he missed it flagrantly. Federer held on for 5-5 and even had a break point for 6-5, but Djokovic was too steady and Federer missed off the forehand. After four deuces, Djokovic held on, but Federer responded in kind to make it 6-6.
The second set tie-break was a time of unmistakable tension for both combatants. Federer desperately needed to come through in that sequence to avoid falling behind by two sets to love. Djokovic was clearly anxious as he tried to press his advantage. The crowd was cheering Federer’s every move, and hardly reacting at all to any of Djokovic’s quality points. It was the high point of the contest for the audience; they wanted more tennis and hoped that Federer could fashion a dramatic comeback.
He did just that. Five of the first six points in that tie-break went against the server. Djokovic was up 4-2. Federer took the next point to make it 4-3, but a resolute Djokovic travelled to 6-3 as Federer netted a running forehand and the Serbian found the corner with an excellent inside in forehand. That gave Djokovic triple set point. Federer serve-volleyed successfully to make it 6-4 and then won an exhilarating exchange from the baseline as Djokovic sent a forehand down the line long. Now Djokovic served at 6-5 and he had a chance to crush an inside out forehand with authority. He was too cautious. Federer directed a backhand down the line to catch Djokovic of guard, and the crowd showered the Swiss with a heartfelt ovation.
It was 6-6. Djokovic advanced to a fourth set point in the tie-break at 7-6, but Federer wiped that one way with a gutsy serve-and-volley behind a heavy kicker, punching a backhand first volley away for a winner. Federer moved to set point himself at 8-7, but Djokovic served his way out of that one and charged to 9-8. An inspired Federer drove an inside out forehand for an outright winner to make it 9-9, but fell behind 10-9 when Djokovic’s forehand return came back with too much weight and depth. Djokovic had garnered his sixth set point of the sequence and his seventh altogether in the set, but he could not convert it. Despite making Federer engage in a difficult rally, Djokovic missed again off the forehand. From 10-10, Federer collected two points in a row, serving-and-volleying crisply on the last point, concluding the last point with an elegant winner at the net.
It was one set all, and Djokovic was astonished, despondent and agitated, all at once. But he nearly broke Federer in the opening game of the third set. He had 15-40 but Federer served-and-volleyed to save one break point and aced Djokovic down the T on the second. He held on gamely for 1-0. In the second game, the Serbian found himself break point down, but he elicited a running forehand error from Federer by constructing the point intelligently. Djokovic held on for 1-1. In the third game, he went back to work fiercely. Federer had 40-15 but Djokovic returned remarkably well to reach break point. The Serbian was fortunate. His short, slightly miss-hit forehand return drew a forehand down the line error from Federer, whose shot went over the baseline.
Djokovic was surely recomposed after that turnaround in momentum. He held for 3-1 and then Federer took the next game before a brief rain delay. When the players returned, Djokovic wore a stern yet confident expression. He held at 30 for 4-2. Federer did not seem terribly out of sorts as he settled back into a reasonably good service rhythm, but Djokovic was fully committed now to making certain he would seal the set. At 4-3, he held at love. Serving for the set two games later, he again did not allow Federer a single point, putting away a couple of overheads in that assertive game. Djokovic was ahead two sets to one.
He surely recollected having a two sets to one and 5-2 lead in the fourth set a year ago in the final against Federer, who captured five games in a row and saved a match point to force a fifth and final set. Djokovic eventually came through 6-4 in the fifth set, but not before he had been put through a harrowing ordeal.
In this encounter, Federer commenced the fourth set with a love game on serve. Both players held easily until 2-2, and then Djokovic upped the ante with some trademark returning. At 30-40, he took a second serve from Federer and drove a two-handed return with extraordinary depth crosscourt. Federer had no play whatsoever. Djokovic had put himself up a break. He held at 30 for 4-2 with an ace down the T at 120 MPH. The Serbian was closing in swiftly on his third Wimbledon crown, and he nearly broke again in the seventh game. Federer double faulted for 30-40, but Djokovic blocked a forehand return into the net. Djokovic had another break point, only to miss again on a forehand return. Federer held on eventually with an ace at 125MPH down the T and a sparkling forehand inside in winner.
Rather than falling behind two breaks and allowing Djokovic to serve for the match at 5-2, Federer was still alive. With Djokovic serving in the eighth game, Federer made one last push, reaching 0-30 on the Serbian’s delivery. Djokovic met that moment admirably, releasing two service winners, driving a backhand down the line to coax a running forehand error from Federer, and holding for 5-3 when Federer bungled an inside out forehand return.
Serving to stay in the match, Federer could not contain a surging Djokovic. The Serbian opened that game with a crackling forehand crosscourt return winner and then he made it to 0-30. Federer took the next point but then Djokovic made his best first serve return of the match, sending his two-hander down the line and into the corner for a winner. It was 15-40, double match point for the Serbian. He made one last effective return of serve, and set up an inside out forehand winner. Djokovic had prevailed 7-6 (1), 6-7 (10), 6-4, 6-3 in just under three hours.
It was readily apparent over the last two sets that Federer was not physically up to the task of confronting Djokovic in a long match. Djokovic could not prevent Federer from achieving some very quick holds on serve. But the Serbian was strategically sound from the backcourt on his own serve and Federer seemed to do more running in this match than in all of his others combined. Time and again, he was made to play forehands on the stretch. Djokovic got to his legs. He clearly wore down his towering rival with his baseline acumen. He played the match essentially on his own terms.
Federer had lost his serve only once in the tournament, but the game’s greatest returner broke him four times. Meanwhile, Djokovic only dropped his delivery that one time in the sixth game of the opening set, and saved six of seven break points altogether. Many in the cognoscenti believed after Federer put on a sublime serving display against Andy Murray that he might replicate that performance against Djokovic, but the Serbian is simply a better tennis player across the board than Murray. His returns are stronger. His forehand is more versatile and reliable. His second serve is far superior to Murray’s. Moreover, Djokovic is a greater champion than Murray.
Federer put in play an astounding 76% of his first serves in his semifinal dissection of Murray, but against Djokovic his number slipped to 67%, which is still very impressive. The Serbian was decidedly better than Federer on this occasion. And not only did he return tenaciously, but he also served magnificently during those last two sets, winning 27 of his 31 first serve points. Djokovic made only 16 unforced errors while Federer had no fewer than 35.
In the end, Djokovic moved past his mid-match demons and recorded a gratifying four set win over the rival he seems to respect the most. “I just proved to myself that I could do it again,” he said. “Obviously I’m an emotional guy. I go through tough moments in a match like he does, like everybody does. It’s no different. But, you know, I express myself sometimes negatively unfortunately, but I also like to show fist pumps, encourage myself to get moving. But, you know, you can’t do too much. Obviously in these particular matched you need to be calm, because only the quiet mind, the serene mind wins the match…. It’s a great achievement. Even though this is the third title here, it feels like the first.”
The feeling here is that there will be many more to follow for Novak Djokovic. It is high time he won his second U.S. Open, and he will be the clear favorite in New York six weeks from now. Meanwhile, he can celebrate a job exceedingly well done on the lawns of Wimbledon. He is steadily raising his stature, realizing how successful he can be, and recognizing what it will take for him to bring the best out of himself. It is no accident that Novak Djokovic is the Wimbledon champion of 2015. As for Federer, he has not won a major since Wimbledon in 2012. Will he win another? The Swiss will turn 34 in August and he remains formidable. But he may not get a better chance than this one.