Djokovic eclipsed a gallant Roger Federer 6-7 (7), 6-4, 7-6 (4), 5-7, 6-4 in the final today on the Centre Court, and the Serbian lifted his career record in major finals to 7-7. He had lost three Big Four finals in a row, and had tasted defeat in five of his last six title round matches in Grand Slam events. This one will be among the most emotionally rewarding triumphs of his career because he had so much misfortune along the way to the win. He had two set points in the opening set tie-break but lost that set, then took the next two sets and built a 5-2 fourth set lead. He even had a match point in the tenth game of the fourth set with Federer serving. But, in the end, Djokovic had to battle back ferociously from break point down at 3-3 in the fifth set and then made his ultimate move to secure a second Wimbledon singles title.
In certain ways, this reminded me of two other five set finals on the Centre Court in terms of the way the victor survived in the end. In 1980, Bjorn Borg won his fifth Wimbledon singles championship in a row in an epic over John McEnroe. Borg was in a similarly advantageous position against McEnroe in that match, ahead two sets to one, serving for the match in the fourth set, up double match point. But McEnroe fought back, and eventually saved five more match points in a gripping tie-break. Borg must have been distraught as McEnroe prevailed 18-16 in that tie-break to send the contest into a fifth set. Borg was down 0-30 on his serve at the start of the fifth, but he held on and lost only one more point on his delivery the rest of the way, coming through 1-6, 7-5, 6-3, 6-7 (16), 8-6.
In 2008, Nadal took a commanding lead over Federer in their final round showdown. The Spaniard won the first two sets, dropped the third in a tie-break, and then had two match points in a fourth set tie-break. Federer rallied to win the set, and he was within two points of winning with Nadal serving at 4-5 in the fifth set before Nadal found a way to win in five exhilarating sets.
Lets be clear: todays final was not as great as those two epics. The Nadal-Federer and Borg-McEnroe matches are in my estimation the two best tennis matches ever played. But make no mistake about it: todays Djokovic-Federer skirmish was a stupendous encounter in many ways, and the quality most of the way was remarkable. Some of the tennis was nothing short of astounding. It was a terrific final that showcased speed, shotmaking and athleticism as few Wimbledon finals have. In the end, Djokovic was the victor in a stirring battle of wills, and he will treasure this triumph for the rest of his career, and perhaps long after he has left the game.
The first set may have featured the best tennis of the match. Both men served tremendously from the outset, and yet Djokovic looked sounder off the ground, returned better than his adversary, and gave himself every chance to win the set. Djokovic was locating his serve extraordinarily well, serving to the Federer forehand with much success, and backing up his delivery remarkably well. In his first five service games en route to 5-4, Djokovic won 20 of 24 points. Meanwhile, he took Federer to deuce in the second game. The crunch came at the end of the set. Djokovic had Federer down 15-30 in the tenth game, but he netted a two-hander up the line off a deep backhand slice from Federer, and sent another backhand down the line into the net at 30-30. Although he made it to deuce and was two points away from sealing the set again, Djokovic could not break a resolute Federer.
They stayed on serve into a tie-break, with Federer surging to 3-0 with an ace. He then got to 4-2, but lost the next three points. At 5-5, Federer was rushed into a forehand error by Djokovics return, and so the Serbian had a set point on his own serve at 6-5. He missed his first serve and then was stymied by a gutsy play from Federer, who drove a forehand inside-in and drew a running forehand error from Djokovic. Djokovic had a second set point with Federer serving at 6-7, but the Swiss aced the Serbian out wide in the ad court at 122 MPH. Another unstoppable serve lifted Federer to 8-7 and a set point of his own, and Djokovic faltered flagrantly, driving a routine two-handed backhand into the set. Set to Federer, 9-7 in the tie-break.
That was admirable stuff from the 32-year-old, seven time champion. He had been largely outplayed. Djokovic was the decidedly better man from the backcourt. And yet, there was an opportunistic Federer moving out in front, sealing the opening set. It was readily apparent that the early stages of the second set would be critical for both competitors. One false move from Djokovic, and Federer might have pounced and widened his lead. That, however, was not the case at all. Djokovic had two break points in the first game of the second set, but he missed a forehand return off a second serve and unluckily sent an inside out forehand that clipped the net cord and landed out.
Federer escaped with some clutch serving to hold after three deuces for 1-0, but Djokovic had found his range at last on his returns. He held at 15 for 1-1 and then garnered his first service break of the match in the third game. Federer was up 40-30 but Djokovic laced an inside-out forehand winner to make it deuce. Federer double faulted to put himself down break point. He served-and-volleyed, and that tactic had been working quite well for him. But Djokovic read this one swiftly, kept his return low, and passed Federer with a backhand down the line. Djokovic had the service break for 2-1.
That was a crucial momentum shift. Djokovic went to 40-0 in the next game with an ace and finally held on his sixth game point to make it 3-1. Both players held relatively easily until Djokovic served for the set at 5-4. At 30-30, he was overcome by apprehension, driving an easy forehand long to give Federer a break point. But Djokovic met that moment admirably, sending a 117 MPH first serve into the body to set up a clean forehand winner behind the Swiss. Djokovic released an ace down the T to arrive at set point, and sealed it with an overhead winner. Set to Djokovic, 6-4. It was one set all.
Both men served superbly all through the third set. On their way to 5-5, Federer swept 20 of 23 points on his delivery. Djokovic was nearly as impressive, taking 20 of 25 points on serve. The standout game was when Federer served at 4-4. He held at love with four consecutive aces, going out wide in the deuce court on the first, down the T on the second, out wide again on the third, and then wide in the ad court at 40-0. His rhythm was impeccable. He was flowing freely. There was nothing much Djokovic could do about it.
But Djokovic played a scintillating return game at 5-5. After Federer was ahead 40-15, Djokovic took three points in a row to reach break point. Federers first serve hit the chalk and the bounce was uneven. Djokovic missed the forehand return. Djokovic earned a second break point, but Federer erased it emphatically with a 117 MPH first serve down the T that was unreturnable. Federer followed masterfully with two more aces to hold on for 6-5 before Djokovic held easily for 6-6. A pivotal tie-break was about to unfold.
Federer commenced that sequence with a 127 MPH ace down the T, but Djokovic released two service winners to take a 2-1 lead. After Federer rallied to 2-2, Djokovic got the mini-break. Federer went to the serve-volley again, but Djokovic made a fine, low return. Federer could not get enough on the first volley and Djokovic passed him down the line off the backhand. Djokovic advanced to 4-2, and seemed to have made it 5-2 when a Federer crosscourt forehand was called out on the baseline. The Swiss challenged the call and was vindicated by the replay. That shot caught the edge of the baseline. Since Djokovic had no real play, the point was rightfully given to Federer.
The Swiss served at 4-3, but Djokovic managed to get a tough first serve return back into play, and Federer anxiously drove a forehand wide. Serving at 3-5, Federer went with his trusted slice serve wide to coax a return error, and so Djokovic served at 5-4. A 116 MPH first serve created the opening for Djokovic to drill a forehand crosscourt into the clear. Now at double set point, he fended off a deep shot from Federer and eventually won that rally when Federer sliced a backhand down the line wide. Set to Djokovic, 7-4 in the tie-break. He had moved in front two sets to one, despite some extraordinary serving from Federer, who had 13 of his 29 aces in that third set.
Early in the fourth, with the match more than two-and-a-half hours old, Federer looked fatigued. Djokovic broke the Swiss for a 3-1 lead, slicing a backhand with good depth to induce an inside-out forehand mistake from Federer. That was only Djokovics second service break of the match, and he seemed poised to perhaps close out this contest. He had not yet lost his serve. But Federer broke in the fifth game for the first time with some bolder play from the baseline, while Djokovic seemed to sit on his lead and wait for Federer to help him out.
Nonetheless, Djokovic broke right back in the sixth game. At 30-40, he drove a forehand crosscourt with interest, and Federer was found wanting. The Swiss tamely sliced a forehand into the net on the stretch. Djokovic had surged to 4-2. He then held at 30 for 5-2 with a 122 MPH first serve to the backhand that Federer could not handle. Djokovic was coming in behind that serve. He was leading 5-2, and victory seemed certain for the Serbian.Federer had other notions. He held at 15 for 3-5. Djokovic served for the match in the ninth game, rallied from 0-30 to 30-30, but became too passive. A determined Federer approached the net forcefully behind a crosscourt backhand to elicit a netted backhand pass. At break point down, Djokovic fell as he played a running forehand crosscourt. Federer did not get distracted, driving a forehand winner down the line as Djokovic took on the role of spectator at his own tennis match.
Federer was back in the match, but there was more danger ahead. At 4-5, 30-15, he double faulted badly and then Djokovic moved to match point with a scorching inside-out forehand that Federer could not answer. But Federer refused to back off. He aced Djokovic at 122 MPH down the T, clipping the line, winning a challenge after that ball was called out. Federer eventually held on for 5-5, and Djokovic was confounded. His lead had disappeared. His confidence was also evaporating.
At 5-5, Djokovic double faulted for 0-30, made a backhand unforced error to trail 0-40 and then took the next two points. But Federer stepped in for a forehand inside-in that was too much for Djokovic, and the Swiss improbably had a 6-5 lead. He served for the set in the twelfth game, and promptly held at 15 to complete a five game sweep for the set. He had come from the brink of defeat to win five consecutive games, saving a match point in the process. The Centre Court crowd was almost delirious.
Both players left the court after the set, but Djokovic remained composed despite the startling turn of events. He held at 15 for 1-0 in the fifth set, but Federers serving was still outstanding. He held easily for 1-1, releasing two more aces. Djokovic answered by holding at 30 with an ace down the T, taking a 2-1 lead. After that game, Djokovic required a medical timeout with the trainer. Federer simply got on with the job, holding at love for 2-2. Djokovic held at 15 for 3-2 with another ace down the T. Federer, though, was serving beautifully, holding at love with a 123 MPH ace down the T for 3-3.
The seventh game of the fifth set was the single most crucial juncture in the match. Federer had a break point with Djokovic serving at 30-40. But Djokovic got his first serve in, took control, went inside-out with pace, and approached the net. Federer tried a chipped backhand pass, hoping to make Djokovic play an awkward low volley. But that passing shot found the net. Djokovic held on his second game point, taking a 4-3 lead with a crackling inside out forehand that was as good as a winner, and a 118 MPH first serve to Federers forehand that the Swiss could not get back over the net.
That service winner gave Djokovic a much needed 4-3 lead. With Federer serving at 15-30 in the eighth game, Djokovic made a magnificent backhand crosscourt passing shot that forced Federer into a backhand volley error. It was double break point for the Serbian, who was hoping to get the opportunity of serving for the match. But Djokovic caught the net tape with a down the line forehand return, and then Federer drilled an inside out forehand winner off a short return. Djokovic got himself a third break point with a passing shot winner off the backhand, but Federer magically found his way out of that dark corner with a glorious half volley pickup. Federer gamely held on for 4-4.
Both players were exhausted now as the contest stretched deep into its fourth hour. Djokovic held at 15 for 5-4. At 15-15 in that game, he lofted a lob crosscourt, and Federer seemed poised to hit one of his many winning overheads. But he could not retreat fast enough, and netted the smash. Now serving to stay in the final in the tenth game of the fifth set, Federer got his first serve in on the first point, but Djokovic made a terrific return. Federer lost that point with a backhand slice into the net. He then badly miss-hit a topspin backhand wide to make it 0-30 before Djokovic narrowly missed a crosscourt forehand wide that could have given him triple match point. Djokovic persisted, driving a backhand down the line to draw a running forehand error from Federer. With Federer serving at double match point down, trailing 15-40, Djokovic played a solid point, and the Swiss netted a backhand. Federer had missed four out of five first serves in the final game, and victory had gone deservedly to Djokovic 6-7 (7), 6-4, 7-6 (4), 5-7, 6-4 in three hours and 56 minutes.
It was a great final in many ways, but fell short of an epic. The level of play was exceedingly high for large portions of the encounter. But Federer had problems on his return for most of the duel, most importantly on his forehand side. In the rallies, Federer probably played too many soft sliced backhands as he tried to disrupt Djokovics rhythm, and that tactic was not successful for the most part. Federer did play 36 serve-and-volley points, and did a fine job in that department. His volleying was very impressive.
But Djokovic was much more positive from the baseline than Federer. He kept driving through the ball with good depth and pace, looking to take control of as many rallies as possible. He was superior in the forehand to forehand rallies because his shots were more penetrating. Too often, Federer was forced to loop his forehand more than he would have wanted. He did not get nearly enough opportunities to step around and wallop his inside out forehand. By and large, the skirmish was fought out more on Djokovics terms than Federers, and ultimately he was a worthy victor. Djokovic won 73% of his first serve points in the match, with Federer at 77% in that category. But the key statistic was second serve points won: Djokovic stood at 65%, with Federer down at 44%. In the third and fourth sets, Federers second serve numbers were dangerously low. He won only 29% of his second serve points in the third set, and 25% in the fourth.
Novak Djokovic was fundamentally honest after the match when he spoke about how much he needed to win it. Roger Federer nearly took it away from the Serbian with his sterling fourth set comeback, but Djokovic played a mature and determined fifth set to win Wimbledon for the second time. This triumph adds considerable weight to his record and reputation. Four of the six previous majors that Djokovic had taken were at the Australian Open. He has won the U.S. Open once and still is in search of his first crown at Roland Garros. Another setback in a major finalparticularly if he had bowed in five sets against Federerwould have been devastating. The only men in the Open Era to lose four Grand Slam tournament finals in a row are Andy Murray and Ivan Lendl, but both players had still not broken through at a major when they endured those hard times. Djokovic could not afford another bruising loss when the stakes were highest.
As for Federer, he had a good fortnight physically, losing only one set in six matches, dropping his serve only once before the final, conserving his energy thoroughly. He got a second wind after falling behind so far in the fourth set, and held up well until 3-3 in the fifth set. He will contend for more majors over the next year, but winning another will be a tall order for this proud champion, who now has a 17-8 record in major finals. Djokovic became only the third player ever to topple Federer in a major final, joining Nadal (six victories), and Juan Martin Del Potro (one) in that category.
Djokovic, however, may have set the stage for many more big titles. This will rank among the most important victories of his career, and he has a good chance to reach double digits in majors over the next few years. After spending too much of the fortnight looking emotionally fragile, Djokovic stood up to an unwavering Federer in only their second major final against each other, and the Serbian took this match more on willpower than anything else.
<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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