It’s been four years since Wimbledon was treated to a final between the members of the so-called ‘Big Three’. Then, it was Novak Djokovic and Roger Federer who faced off against one another, the Serbian claiming victory over four sets. Today, in a repeat of that 2015 final, they meet once again on the hallowed turfs of the All England Club.
Much has been made of the Federer-Nadal rivalry, which was renewed in dramatic fashion in Friday’s semi-final, but the encounters played out by the Serb and the Swiss deserve their own unique place in the pantheon of great sporting contests.
No two men have played one another more in the majors than Djokovic and Federer. Their head-to-head stands at 47, with the world No 1 leading 25-22 (and 9-6 in the Grand Slams). And to date Federer is the only man to have beaten Djokovic in all four majors, and likewise Djokovic with Federer. As the figures show, the rivalry is one of the most competitive and evenly matched in the Open Era.
Having both amassed a wealth of knowledge on one another over the years, it stands to reason there are few secrets left between the two players. Djokovic and Federer know each other inside out. “I think the moment you’ve played somebody probably more than 15 times, especially in recent years also a few times, there’s not that much more left out there,” the Swiss said on Friday.
Ironically, this familiarity is what promises to make today’s clash so unpredictable and, by extension, thrilling. In keeping with their previous encounters, expect a degree of experimentation from the two men – in terms of their movement, shot-making and positioning on the court – as they attempt to find a winning formula.
Federer, in particular, will know that he needs to change his game plan from the one implemented so successfully against Nadal. In that match, the eight-time Wimbledon champion notably cut down on his sliced backhands, deliberately hitting through the ball in an attempt to peg the Spaniard back. It was an approach that worked. As a result, Nadal was provided with a weaker foundation to deploy his devastating forehand attacks, handing Federer the initiative to push forward when appropriate.
But against Djokovic – one of the most complete players to have ever graced the game – it’ll prove a much harder challenge for Federer to tailor his game. The Serbian is virtually flawless.
Unfortunately for the Swiss, his inch-perfect serve – one of his strongest weapons – is unlikely to pack the required punch against Djokovic. As one of the best returners in the game, the world No 1 knows how to nullify this particular threat, allowing him to launch straight into a rally and push on for the point.
Instead of engaging in those longer cross-court exchanges which will suit the Serb, Federer's best hope will be to keep the points quick and short. That means venturing forward to the net at every available opportunity and also utilising the serve and volley. Once momentum swings in his favour, he might find the floodgates will open.
Djokovic, though, knows what will be coming his way. “He loves to play very fast,” Djokovic said of his rival. “Takes away the time from his opponent. Just doesn’t give you any same looks.
“He just rushes you to everything. So for players maybe like Nadal or myself that like to have a little more time, it’s a constant pressure that you have to deal with. I’ve played with Roger in some epic finals here a couple years in a row, so I know what to expect.
“I’m going to do my best to control that in some way and be able to portray my best tennis in a balanced, hopefully, state throughout the match.”
One advantage that Federer holds from the off is the backing of the crowd. As Wimbledon’s adopted son, the masses will be behind the 37-year-old veteran as he embarks upon a ninth title tilt. Djokovic, though, revels in his status as the outsider and pantomime villain.
This much was clear in his semi-final against Roberto Bautista Agut when, after winning a 45-shot rally, the longest ever recorded at the All England Club since records began, the Serb placed a baiting hand to his ear. Inviting both praise and scorn from the crowd, the 32-year-old was met with rapturous applause – but it was a telling reminder of the relationship he enjoys with the Wimbledon crowds. In reality, the more they push for Federer today, the more Djokovic is likely to feed off such an atmosphere.
After two thrilling weeks of tennis, that has once again seen the game’s elder figures dominant proceedings, today’s final is a fitting conclusion. Which way it swings, though, is anyone’s guess. “At the end of the day it comes very much down to who’s better on the day, who’s in a better mental place, who’s got more energy left, who’s tougher when it really comes to the crunch,” Federer said on Friday. A man of experience and ever the voice of reason, you feel he may be onto something.
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