The ending doesn’t always satisfy, but the men’s singles finals of Wimbledon 2019, which capped a fortnight that won’t be remembered for its competitiveness, was an extraordinary affair. The combatants were familiar: Swiss maestro Roger Federer and world number one Novak Djokovic. It lasted nearly five hours, and it featured the first tiebreaker to end a fifth set in the men’s draw.
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Federer defies age yet again
But let’s back up.
It was something of a surprise that Federer even made it to the championship match. He was ranked third and seeded second, yes, but his recent performances at the Grand Slams didn’t give me confidence. The quarterfinal loss to Kevin Anderson in last year’s Wimbledon, after he led two sets to love and had match point on his opponent’s serve, was as dispiriting a loss as he’s suffered. This, coupled with his fourth-round loss to journeyman John Millman at the US Open where the oppressive humidity wore him down, showed he was perhaps no longer up to the grind of best-of-five. His fourth-round loss to Stefanos Tsitsipas at the Australian Open in January looked and felt, as John McEnroe put it, like “the changing of the guard.” His fadeout had long been foretold and postponed, and it seemed, in the year he would turn 38, that his time was finally winding up.
But then he won in Dubai, his 100th career title. In the tour’s swing through American hard courts he reached the final at Indian Wells and won in Miami. At Roland Garros, after three years away from the red clay, he made the semifinals, losing to the King of Clay, Rafael Nadal. He won the Halle Open, the only Wimbledon tuneup he plays, for the tenth time. Did he have a chance, a real chance, at winning it all again on the lush grass of the All England Lawn Tennis and Croquet Club? To do so he would probably have to beat Nadal and Djokovic back-to-back, a feat he’d never accomplished in a major. Was he up to it?
In the runup to the final it looked like he did. After being merely good in the first week (as was Djokovic), Federer found a new gear in his quarterfinal match against Kei Nishikori. After dropping the first set, Federer found his vintage form. His serve looked majestic, and his topspin backhand, erratic at best in previous rounds, was deadly. When he exchanges drive backhands with Nishikori’s two-hander, one of the best in the business, you know he feels good about it. Nishikori’s service games were close the rest of the match, and Federer didn’t drop serve again, carving out a 4–6 6–1 6–4 6–4 victory. He looked great as he took on Rafael Nadal, his semifinal foe.
Nadal, ranked second and seeded third, had cruised through the first week, the only threat a spicy second-round affair with Nick Kyrgios, the sport’s infuriating enfant terrible. The grass played slow, which was one reason the Spaniard tore through his opposition. His clash with Federer in the semifinal, a rematch of their 2008 final, a match of such sustained, brilliant quality it is routinely called the greatest match ever played, seemed it would be the highlight of the tournament.
The sequel, eleven years in the making, didn’t turn out as good as the original, but it was thrilling nonetheless. The first set was cagey and anxious, and each player dominated his service game. At 4–5 Nadal held easily by hammering four service winners (around a double fault), an efficiency that distinguishes his service games after coach Carlos Moya helped him fashion it into a formidable weapon. In fact he entered the match with more aces than either Federer or Djokovic.
The first went to a tiebreaker, and it went narrowly to Federer, 7–6 (5). Then the Swiss dropped the second set 6–1, seemingly to conserve energy. He got back on his horse and romped through the third set 6–3. The fourth set was close, but Nadal dropped serve early and had to chase Federer. The last fifteen minutes or so were nerve-wracking: Nadal fought off match points on his serve, forced Federer to serve it out, then obtained break chances. Had Federer dropped serve, the set would have been tied 5–5, and it would have been anyone’s ballgame. But after some stomach-churning moments, he held and took the last set 6–4.
It wasn’t the best of matches, but it was high quality, it was dramatic, particularly late, and it cemented late-career Federer as the master of the rival he never seemed to be able to figure out. He still trails Nadal 24–16, but he’s taken six of their last seven encounters.
Djokovic eases into the final
Djokovic, for his part, had the easiest route to the final. He dropped a set in the third round to an inspired Hubert Hurkacz but saw off the threat handily.
Because so many top seeds fell in his half of the draw, his semifinal opponent was Roberto Bautista Agut, the 23rd seed. The Spaniard had beaten Djokovic three times in five tries this year, but at 31 years old he was making his first appearance in a Slam semifinal, and no one gave him much chance of upending the overwhelming favorite. The match featured long, nervy baseline exchanges between two players whose styles seemed to mirror each other. One particularly punishing rally lasted 45 shots, the longest since rally length has been recorded. Djokovic didn’t quite look his best, but after Bautista Agut tied the match at one set all, he does what he always does when a lesser opponent pulls even with him: He stepped on the gas and took off, making this opponent look foolish for even thinking he might have a chance.
The titanic ending
And so we came to the end. Before the final the odds were heavily in the Serb’s favor. Their head-to-head record tilted his way, 25–22, with Djokovic winning all their Slam encounters since 2012, when Federer beat him on the way to winning his seventh Wimbledon. The Serb had beaten Federer in the final of the tour’s premier tournament in 2014 and 2015. The last time the Swiss had prevailed was late in 2015. Really, the only chance Federer had of winning was if he played at a transcendent level and if Djokovic wasn’t sharp. It wasn’t likely. Djokovic rises to the occasion, and in Slam finals he is at his best.
David Law of The Tennis Podcast(which I discovered early this year and can no longer live without, especially at the Slams) predicted a Federer victory before the tournament began. On the eve of the final, he stuck to his guns despite conceding that it was more a hunch than anything. His two colleagues, Katherine Whitaker and Matt Roberts, stuck to their choice: Djokovic.
After seeing the quarters and semis, I thought: This is it, Roger’s last, best chance at another trophy here. He was excellent, Novak merely very good. They were on grass, Federer’s best surface. If he played as he did against Nishikori and Nadal, he stood more than a puncher’s chance. The door was open a crack, and he could actually slip through.
The match began, and Federer slipped into that crack and blew the doorway wide open. His level flickered between very good and sensational. Looking yet again like a man flecked with stardust, he flashed the mesmerizing all-court grass game that confounded Nishikori and Nadal, and he bamboozled Djokovic with whipping forehands, feathery slice backhands that died at the service line, pinpoint serves, elegant volleys. Djokovic had looked out of sorts, as if battling himself. The conditions were perfect for a ninth trophy for the Swiss.
Djokovic edged Federer in a tight first set, 7–6, then dropped serve quickly in the second. He went down a double break and seemed about to be bageled, losing the set 6–1. It was the most lopsided set he had ever lost to the Swiss, and to have it happen in a Wimbledon final seemed wildly unlikely. In the third set he raised his form just well enough to repulse break attempts, then eked out another tiebreaker. Then he fell behind a double break again in the fourth set. He earned his first break point late in the set and converted, finally managing to break Federer’s serve for the first time all day. It didn’t matter. Federer served out the set and took it 6–4.
The fifth set
The fifth and last set went underway, and it would last nearly two hours all by itself. Down an early break of serve, Federer broke back to 4–all. Then they took turns exchanging holds. The tension rose to gut-churning levels. The crowd, on tenterhooks, shrieked and roared. So when Federer broke serve to go up 8–7 in the final set, the match creeping upon four and a half hours, it felt as if a miracle had happened. The crowd roared more vociferously than ever. Soon it was 40–15, two championship points on Federer’s serve. I was in tears and had to blink them away to look at the TV screen. I thought, “Oh my God, he’s going to win this, he’s actually going to win this!”
My mind went over the immensity of what Federer had achieved. To outplay the world’s top player and the dominant player of this generation, producing this kind of performance a month before you turn 38, is a mind-boggling triumph by one who continues to defy Father Time. At his age he should be playing Challenger-level tournaments trying to keep his ranking high enough just to keep him in tournament draws, if not sipping daiquiris on a beach in the Bahamas and relishing the rewards of his illustrious career. Here he was, about to beat the very best player in the world, five years his junior, the one who had been dominating their rivalry.
He failed. Djokovic coolly saw off both match points, the second one with a crisp forehand passing shot the net-charging Federer couldn’t reach. The approach shot was short, as if he dared Djokovic to make a ballsy play with no margin for error. The Serb didn’t wilt. He took the next two points for the break, leveling the match.
There was another long game at 11-all, with Federer making one last desperate effort to break serve, but to no avail. A third tiebreaker arrived, the first time the men’s final had reached a fifth set decided by one. The rule was instituted only last year, after all. And for the third time that afternoon, Federer lost the tiebreaker. The final scoreline is about as weird as you will ever see: 7–6(5) 1–6 7–6(4) 4–6 13–12(3).
Djokovic’s celebration was oddly subdued. There was no chest-beating, no bellowing. After a strangely awkward handshake and a stiff half-embrace (you’d expect a comradely hug from the participants of such a grueling affair), Djokovic turned to the crowd, a hip thrust out, his hands in fists, and smiled that smug, defiant smile that says, You can hate me, but I won, and there’s not a damn thing you can do about it.
A devastating defeat, and the Serb’s supreme gift
If Djokovic the Destroyer of Worlds wasn’t the version of the Serb to appear during the final (the player who demolished Nadal in the Australian Open), it was the more familiar one who did: Djokovic the Soul Crusher. And Federer would have been crushed, absolutely crushed, by this defeat, even if afterwards he was his usually classy self.
He was no doubt the better player. The stats bear it out: He won more games (36 to 32) and more points (218 to 204), hit so many more winners (94 to 54) that they outweighed hitting ten more errors, served more aces (25 to 10), earned more break points and converted more of them. Matt Roberts of The Tennis Podcast said that Federer should have won the first four sets, and he’s right.
Yet there’s a simple statistical explanation for his defeat: He hit 11 unforced errors in the three tiebreakers, Djokovic none. You could summarize the match thus: Federer lost three tiebreakers. How else to explain how a player who won at least six gamesin each of five sets lost the match? Therein lies the cruelty of tennis’s scoring system: It’s not about winning more points but winning the right ones. You can outplay your opponent and still lose.
No one knows this better than the one who was one point away from abject defeat but who pulled out an exhilarating victory: Novak Djokovic. Without having his best game, without his best weapon (his serve return let him down, he confessed at the postmatch press conference), he played well enough to win the points that really mattered.
And to do that he had to resort to his last, best weapon: his will. Battling the person widely considered the greatest player of all time, so beloved around the world that everywhere he plays he has home-court advantage, so embraced by fans that the whole stadium rooted ecstatically for his victory, Djokovic went about winning with a resolve so steely he didn’t need his best shotmaking. (Not that it was easy; afterwards Djokovic said the match was the most emotionally demanding of his life.) At just the right times he lifted his game and nosed ahead of an excellent, supremely gifted competitor being willed on by tens of thousands of noisy fans (and millions around the world). This man is not without his own supreme gifts, and his best one won him the championship.
The parade of greatness continues
Had Federer won, his Slam count would be six higher than Djokovic’s, a daunting gap. Instead it’s four (20 to 16), which seems far more doable to overcome. Djokovic could win the US Open, where he is the heavy favorite, and three of the four majors in 2020 and tie Federer in just over a year. And he’d be in position to win more. If he can stay fit (and no one is as maniacally focused on keeping himself in shape as Djokovic), there can be many more Slams to come.
The twilight of Federer’s career has lasted longer and shone brighter than the daylight of other players’, but the clock ticks, and Father Time remains undefeated. Still, I won’t be the one to call this the start of the end. Many times before others have rung the death knell on his career and found the body in the casket alive and kicking. I remember seeing him slip on the grass in the fifth set of his 2016 semifinal against Milos Raonic, another match in which he had outplayed his opponent and lost. It seemed symbolic then, the great man losing his footing and sprawling on the hallowed ground of Centre Court. He would miss six months after having surgery on his knee, and it seemed for all the world as if the end had finally come. We all know what followed: two Australian Open titles, a Wimbledon, and a return to Number One.
What may turn out to be Federer’s ace in the GOAT debate, no matter how many more majors his rivals win, is his longevity. It’s very hard to believe that Djokovic and Nadal, no matter how many trophies they end up winning, will still be as good as they are three, four, or five years from now. Their style of play is too physically demanding. Nadal already suffers from recurring knee tendinitis that will make him more selective in choosing tournaments to play. Djokovic has recovered marvelously from the elbow problem that plagued him two years ago, but his lunging and physiology-defying contortions may yet come back to bite him, the way Andy Murray’s grinding style eventually blew out his hip.
In contrast, Federer’s play seems balletic, Da Vinci-esque in its proportions, a style that appears like divinity in human form. And he still enjoys the game immensely. Who knows how much longer he has?
Catherine Whitaker said, in an episode of The Tennis Podcast, that we’re suffering from Big Three fatigue. Maybe, but I don’t mind. If any of the NextGen are good enough to knock them off their perch, let him go ahead and try. (As I wrote last week, they’re not up to it yet.) In the meantime, I will enjoy watching these transcendent talents parade their greatness.