Wimbledon 2014: Ageless Roger Federer takes on remodelled Novak Djokovic in men's final
Re-vitalised Swiss is eager to become the first man to win eight Wimbledon singles titles, while his Serb opponent has made changes he hopes will prevent a sixth recent Grand Slam final defeat
He is playing in a record 59th consecutive Grand Slam tournament and at 32 is aiming to become the oldest men’s Wimbledon champion in the Open era, but as Roger Federer prepared to take on Novak Djokovic in this afternoon’s final here he sounded like a young man setting out on his career. “I have a lot of energy in the tank,” the seven-times Wimbledon champion said. “I’m clearly very excited to play in the final. That’s how you want to feel before a final – totally energised and eager to play.”
Federer has been written off more times than a banana republic’s debts, but for several months now he has felt in his best shape for years. He feels in better condition even than in 2012, when he claimed the last of his 17 Grand Slam titles here despite a back injury.
Bad backs are a recurring problem for tennis players – as Andy Murray well knows – and Federer has been no exception. The Swiss has always been meticulous in both his physical preparation and the time he needs on the practice court, but until the start of this year his schedule had been repeatedly disrupted by his back issues.
This year, however, he has felt capable of challenging again for the biggest prizes. The days when Federer would cut a swathe through the tournament schedule have long gone – in three years between 2004 and 2006 he won a total of 34 titles but by winning in Dubai and Halle en route to Wimbledon he knew that he had a chance of further glory at the venue closest to his heart.
“It’s important to reach a certain level where you trust your game, where you play and trust yourself in the big moments,” he said. “Physically you [have to] know you can play five sets seven times. That’s what the mindset has to be before a Grand Slam. I felt this way before this tournament.”
Even with the occasional injury problems, Federer’s fitness record has been remarkable. “I’ve really never missed any parts of the season,” he said. “I always played the indoor season. I’ve always played the World Tour Finals, ever since 2002. I’ve played all the Slams, 50-plus now.
“I’ve never had a five-month break or anything like that. I think for that you need to be, first of all, healthy physically, but also mentally ready to do it. You’ve got to love the game, because if you don’t love it, then it’s just going to be too hard. I think that’s what kept me going – quite easily actually – because I know why I’m playing tennis.”
As he attempts to become the first man to win eight Wimbledon singles titles, Federer will be playing in his 25th Grand Slam final, extending his own all-time record. Djokovic will be appearing in his 14th. The 27-year-old Serb already has six Grand Slam titles under his belt, but in the last two years he has appeared in six Grand Slam finals and lost five of them.
Having been runner-up in three of the last four Grand Slam tournaments, Djokovic will join Ivan Lendl, Andy Roddick and Murray as the only players to lose four Grand Slam finals in a row with a further loss here. Another incentive will be the knowledge that victory will see him replace Rafael Nadal at the top of the world rankings.
It was as a result of his repeated disappointments in big finals that Djokovic recruited Boris Becker to his entourage at the end of last year. Twenty-four years after he played the last of his three consecutive Wimbledon finals against Stefan Edberg (who won two of them), the German will find himself in opposition with the Swede on Centre Court again. Edberg joined Federer’s coaching team at about the same time as Becker signed up with Djokovic.
Edberg’s influence has been apparent here in the way Federer has cut down on his opponents’ opportunities to pass, by hitting more balls down the middle. Becker, whose huge serve earned him the nickname “Boom Boom”, has worked on Djokovic’s serve but also on several other areas of his game.
“We have worked on improvement overall,” Becker said. “Novak is not a natural server, it is most obvious to see. There have been improvements and he’s working constantly on his fitness, his positioning on the court, how you approach break points, and how you struggle. There’s a work in progress all the time. If you don’t, the guys behind you overtake you.”
Federer’s serve, which has always been one of the most underrated aspects of his game, has been a major key to his form over the last fortnight. In his six matches the Swiss has dropped serve just once.
Djokovic, who has been broken eight times and has spent 15 hours on court in comparison with Federer’s 10, said: “The key against him is trying not to allow him to dictate too much because he likes to be very aggressive, he likes to come to the net. I’m going to have to be able to get as many returns back in the court and try also to stay closer to the line, protect the baseline.”
Federer’s analysis was similar. “We both like to take charge, especially on quicker courts,” he said. “He has a wonderful way of either redirecting or taking the ball early, taking pace from the opponent, even generating some of his own. I think that’s what makes him so hard to play. There’s not really a safe place you can play into.
“Novak can hurt you down the line or cross-court on both sides. He’s really improved now through the years. I’ve seen him come through the rankings. His forehand, his serve, his movement clearly is what stands out the most at this moment now. He’s really been able to improve that and make it rock solid. I think for me it’s really important to stay aggressive against him, especially here at Wimbledon.”
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