For 11 years now Rafael Nadal’s victory over Roger Federer in the 2008 Wimbledon final has been regarded as the greatest match in history, but that judgement might have to be revised after another extraordinary climax to The Championships here on Sunday.
However, those facts tell only part of a remarkable story. At four hours and 55 minutes it was the longest final in Wimbledon history – beating the final of 2008 – as Federer, at 37 years and 340 days, went desperately close to becoming the oldest man in the Open era to win a Grand Slam singles title.
Federer was the better player for much of the match and would have won had he not lost all three tie-breaks. The Swiss also had two match points when he served at 8-7 in the final set, only for Djokovic to hold his nerve. The 32-year-old Serb is the first man in 71 years to win the title after facing match points in the final.
As has been his custom, Djokovic went down on his knees after after his victory and ate some blades of grass. He said afterwards that they tasted “amazing, better than ever”.
At his post-match press conference Djokovic described it as “probably the most demanding match mentally that I have ever been a part of” and pointed out that he had been one shot away from losing.
“This match had everything,” he said. “It could have easily gone his way. I thought he was serving extremely well the entire match. I had a lot of difficulties reading his serve. But in these kind of moments, I just try to never lose self-belief, just stay calm, just focus on trying to get the ball back. In the most important moments, in all three tie-breaks, I found my best game.”
It was a final full of spectacular shot-making and great athleticism. The supremacy of Federer for much of it was demonstrated by the fact that Djokovic did not force his first break point until the end of the fourth set, with two hours and 47 minutes on the clock. The Serb is regarded as the best returner in the modern game, but throughout he had trouble reading Federer’s serve.
Djokovic, five years the younger man at 32, has now won nine of his last 11 matches against Federer, who has not beaten him in Grand Slam competition for seven years.
The world No 1 moved into fourth place on the all-time list of men’s champions at the All England Club – only Federer (eight titles) and William Renshaw and Pete Sampras (seven each) have won more – while only Federer (101 victories) and Jimmy Connors (84) can better his total of 72 match wins on these courts. Djokovic’s 16th Grand Slam title leaves him just four short of Federer’s all-time record and two behind Rafael Nadal’s total.
From the moment the two men walked out on court under overcast skies on another warm afternoon it was clear which player had the majority of the crowd’s support. Federer has long had a special place in the hearts of the Wimbledon public and when he hit an ace on the opening point the Centre Court crowd erupted into a roar.
Federer had the only break point of the opening set four games later, with Djokovic grateful to see his opponent hit a forehand wide. Having gone 5-3 up in the tie-break with some admirable aggression, Federer lost it by making unforced errors – three of them on his forehand – on the next four points. The set lasted 58 minutes, which was longer than the previous day’s women’s singles final.
Perhaps ominously for Federer, Djokovic had lost to the Swiss after winning the first set in only one of their previous 47 meetings. Federer nevertheless came roaring back in the second set. With Djokovic’s level dipping dramatically, Federer quickly went 4-0 up. By the time Djokovic double-faulted on Federer’s first set point the Serb had won only 12 points in the whole set.
Djokovic quickly put the second set behind him, though it was again Federer who set the pace in the third. At 4-5 Djokovic went set point down when Federer hit a stunning half-volley winner at the end of a wonderful rally, but the Serb stayed alive with an unreturned serve.
The set went to another tie-break, in which Federer once again made too many mistakes. He fought back from 1-5 down to 4-5 before a loose backhand and a netted forehand handed Djokovic the set.
In the fourth set the drama increased. Federer made two successive breaks to lead 5-2, only for Djokovic to end a two-and-three-quarter-hour wait for his first break point in the following game. Federer saved it by hitting a backhand winner at the end of a 35-stroke rally, but Djokovic won the next two points to register his first break of serve. Federer, however, did not waste his second chance to send the match into a deciding set.
With more than three hours on the clock it should have been no surprise that both players started to falter in the final set. At 1-2, to rapturous cheers from the crowd, Federer saved three more break points, but two games later the Swiss again went 15-40 down and on the second break point Djokovic hit a sumptuous backhand cross-court pass beyond his opponent’s reach.
With Djokovic leading 4-2 the end appeared to be close, but Federer broke back immediately as the Serb tightened up. At 4-5 and 30-30 Federer held firm when two points from defeat, and at 5-5 Djokovic showed similar resilience, winning the point at 15-30 with a sensational dive volley before holding serve.
By now the pressure was on Federer as the man serving first and at 5-6 he again clung on by his fingernails after going within two points of defeat on three more occasions.
At 7-7 Djokovic stumbled. A loose forehand by the defending champion took the score to 30-40 and to deafening roars from the crowd Federer broke with a superb forehand cross-court pass.
Serving for the match, Federer went 40-15 up with two successive aces, but missed a forehand on his first match point and was beaten by a forehand cross-court pass on the second before two netted forehands handed back the break.
Djokovic saved two break points when serving at 11-11 and the match went to a deciding tie-break at 12-12, the All England Club having introduced tie-breaks in the final set for the first time this year.
Once again Djokovic was the man to hold his nerve. A backhand winner down the line took him to 6-3 and he converted his first match point when Federer shanked a forehand.
“It was a great match with wonderful points played,” Federer said afterwards. “It had everything. Novak played amazing today.”
Asked how he would bounce back from this defeat, Federer said he expected it to be similar to his reaction to defeat by Nadal in 2008.
He explained: “I will look back at it and think: ‘Well, it's not that bad after all.’ For now it hurts, and it should, like every loss does here at Wimbledon.I think it's a mindset. I'm very strong at being able to move on because I don't want to be depressed about what was actually an amazing tennis match.”
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