London: Novak Djokovic had been getting to grand slam finals, but he had lost the knack of winning them, losing five of his past six. At Wimbledon on Sunday, the Serbian wobbled and teetered before he courageously found what he needed to beat Roger Federer in five memorable sets, his seventh grand slam title denying Federer a Wimbledon men’s record of eight.
At almost 33, the legendary Swiss may have lost his last opportunity to win his 18th major, two years after claiming No.17 on his favourite grass court. Then again, he has shown his champion qualities so many times – including in this match, when he recovered from 2-5 in the fourth set and saved a match point at 3-5 to force a fifth – that who could safely predict what may yet lie ahead?
For Djokovic, there would seem to be plenty more after a dramatic 6-7 (7-9), 6-4, 7-6 (7-4), 5-7, 6-4 triumph that added a second Wimbledon trophy to his first, from 2011. There have also been four Australian Opens, and a single US. The French Open is still conspicuously absent, with Rafael Nadal to blame for that.
This was a truly memorable, remarkable match that lasted almost four hours, and deserved better than to finish with a netted Federer backhand. An overcome Djokovic sank to his knees, then walked up to embrace his team, including Boris Becker, who was brought in to deliver high-stakes results in high-pressure situations like these.
Djokovic dedicated the victory to “my future wife (Jelena Ristic) and our future baby”, to his family and coaching team, and his first coach Jelena Gencic, who passed away last year. He admitted it was difficult to regroup and recover from the loss of the fourth set, but he'd found a way.
“This is the best tournament in the world, the most valuable one. This is the first match I have ever seen in my life when I was five years old was Wimbledon, and that match stuck to my mind,’’ Djokovic, 27, said after acknowledging Federer.
“He’s a magnificent champion, a great example, great role model to many kids, so I respect your career and everything you have done, and thank you for letting me win today.’’
Federer’s twin girls arrived for the ceremony in matching floral dresses, but only in time to see their father accept a second runners-up plate to go with his seven champion’s trophies, the last of them claimed in his previous grand slam final, in 2012.
“It was a great final – I can’t believe I made it to five. It wasn’t looking good there for a while,’’ Federer said. “So I hope, who knows, maybe it was going to be enough.’’
Not quite, but the standard was set in an exceptional first set, Federer playing aggressively and well, but Djokovic playing slightly better – especially early, when he lost just two points on serve in his first four games. But Federer forced a tiebreak, and saved two set points before pinching it 9-7 with his first, drawing a backhand error from Djokovic that also drew the normally reserved coaching consultant Stefan Edberg out of his chair in the players’ box.
The crowd was fiercely pro-Fed, as expected, and Djokovic fiercely competitive, as always. He followed up the set that got away – and in which he won 46 points to 43 – by earning the first two break points of the match to start the second. Federer hung on that time, but not two games later, when the Serb took advantage of a double-fault at deuce with a backhand crosscourt pass winner.
Federer had lost his serve just once in his six previous matches of an outstanding tournament, and this was also a different scenario for Djokovic, who had not dropped the first set during this grand slam, or in six matches in the last, at Roland Garros.
But chase position worked this time for the player who had lamented the fact that in the previous two rounds he had let opponents back into contests he had controlled. Djokovic was starting to assert himself in the longer rallies, and having saved a break-back chance at 5-4, levelled at one-set-all with an overhead for his 35th winner, and a fist-pump towards coach Boris Becker.
The Cambridges, and Beckhams, as well as the Australian tennis monarch Rod Laver were among the guests in the nearby Royal Box, as what became a best-of-three contest and riveting arm wrestle was controlled by the server, Federer, with a four-ace game for 5-4.
Federer persisted with occasional serve-volley points, and was not afraid to chip-charge on Djokovic’s second ball, with mixed success – considering Djokovic’s back-court excellence – but also positive intentions.
In an outstanding duel, the tally of winners was high and the error-count remarkably low, with Federer serving himself out of trouble at 5-5, when he was twice down break point. The sense was that the tiebreak that followed would have an important bearing on the championship's outcome, and the most crucial point in it was the routine forehand Federer punched wide when serving at 3-4. That was all Djokovic needed, taking the lead for the first time two points later when Federer sliced a backhand long.
Crisis time arrived at 0-40 in the third game of the fourth set, after a slight dip in energy and concentration from the man seeking a record eighth Wimbledon title. He was soon to need a small miracle, after clambering back to deuce, but sending a forehand long on break point No.4.
It is a long, long way back from two sets and a break down against a player of Djokovic’s quality, playing as well as he was, but Federer was up for the challenge, and no doubt aware of Djokovic’s recent finals frailties, and at 1-3 broke back to 15 with a forehand cross court winner, a leap and a yell. If the roof had been closed, it might well have lifted off.
The first grand slam final since the 2009 US Open not to feature Rafa Nadal or Andy Murray lacked for nothing else. Two more breaks were traded, a tentative Djokovic ahead 5-2, but unable to serve out the championship at 5-3, as Federer found something more, again.
During an astonishing run of five consecutive games, the fourth seed saved a match point at 4-5 with an ace after using Hawk-Eye to challenge a first serve that had been ruled a fault. Djokovic was getting shakier and shakier, another poor game combined with some added pressure from Federer proving costly at 5-5, and opening the door for Federer to force an improbable fifth set.
Indeed, Ivo Karlovic tweeted humorously that Djokovic should have won all four sets, and here he was on level terms, his confidence wounded, his right leg hurting, and a medical timeout called at 2-1. He had also played for five more hours than his opponent just to reach the final, but this was a war of attrition. At 5-4, Djokovic broke one last time to seize a second Wimbledon championship, and regain the No.1 ranking from Nadal.
It was a match full of courage and character from both players, and Federer did all that he could. He will be back, though, to try again for No.8.
“See you next year,’’ the favoured son told the adoring crowd. Good to hear it. Encore, please.