Roger Federer said he did not want to be “depressed about actually an amazing tennis match,” which is easy for Roger Federer to say. Harder words to live by.
It really was an amazing performance for him, on any objective terms. Serving against the greatest returner ever, Federer didn’t face a break point through three sets. In the full five hours he broke more than he was broken, won more points, and won more games in the longest Wimbledon final ever—which he lost to Novak Djokovic, 7-6(5), 1-6, 7-6(4), 4-6, 13-12(3). Take any stat you like, except the only one that matters, and Federer comes out on top.
Federer had two championship points, on serve. He had delivered two aces in that game already and had Wimbledon on his racket, twice. At least, this is what I’m told by reliable sources; I have no memory of these points. All that can be found in this reporter’s notebook is a large, inky spiral. The footage seems to have mysteriously vanished from human archives. The experts at ESPN couldn’t even track them down for inclusion in a 13-minute highlight package. But it’s true that Roger Federer is the first man to hold championship points at Wimbledon and not cash out in 71 years. It was the third time that Djokovic saved two Federer match points in the fifth set at a major.
Surviving these near-death incidents allowed Djokovic to live for nearly another hour and capture his second straight Wimbledon title and fifth overall. For all the absurd entertainment value, this match was not uninterrupted quality all the way through. The champion played mind-numbingly steady tennis for much of the match; he tanked the second set, and looked woozy through much of the third and bits of the fourth. His was a skeletal victory, cobbled together by staying the course and winning the right points in right clusters—in his case, three impeccable tiebreaks, where he allowed zero unforced errors while Federer bled 11.
About those tiebreaks: There’s something fragile about watching Federer operate at the highest level against his best competition, a brittleness his fans know more intimately than they’d like. His game of fine margins is susceptible to go haywire: to shank forehands into the clouds, to miss those unearthly mid-court pickups so often taken for granted, to plunk a crucial ball off the top of the net cord. These errors are nonfatal in the context of a service game, where a few casual aces might quickly right all wrongs, and where the holistic goal is to win the game. In a tiebreak, where every point is part of the race to seven, any single lapse on serve could cost the set. Rooting for Federer in these moments is like participating in a mass prayer to ward off these moments. The sensation could not be more different, watching Djokovic operate in those same situations. Nobody has won more of their breakers in the last year than the Serbian, who can summon a level of complete tennis hygiene that is rarely detected anywhere else on the planet. Any number of things might happen on the opponent’s side, but Djokovic can be counted on to pound that ball, with depth, back into the middle of the court until he has his seven points.
Each matchup among the three greats of men’s tennis has its own particular flavor. At Wimbledon last year, Rafael Nadal and Djokovic warped the traditional baseline rally beyond all recognizable forms. When Djokovic and Federer did battle on Sunday, it was tense cat-and-mouse. Though Federer is at home at the net—and finished points there efficiently in this match—the threat of Djokovic’s court coverage and passing shots dampens the appeal of moving forward. Once trapped in a long rally, Federer sliced his backhand persistently, less intent on taking away time than sending low sliding balls back, probing a brick wall for any cracks. When Federer took a step into the court to mash would-be winners, he was fully prepared for to step right back to hit another one on the next shot, which he had to do more often than not. He stretched Djokovic, doing whatever he could to get the ultimate defender to lose his footing on the slippery grass (which he did on several occasions), and occasionally he’d force him to haul ass to a drop shot, but he cannot simply hit through him the way he might a normal player. “I thought I was most of the match on the back foot, actually,” Djokovic said after the match. “I was defending, he was dictating play, and I just try to fight and find a way when it mattered the most.”
Djokovic plays off his back foot better than most play with all the time in the world. He profits from his wildest gift, which is the flexibility that lets him apply serious pop even when swinging his racket at the outermost limit of his range. The parts of Djokovic I most appreciate—the circus-style contortions, all the bitterly sarcastic smiles and thumbs-up, the wide-eyed self-berating—were all on display, at moments. In a perfect world, late-career Djokovic would give up on new-age, peace-and-love pacifism and go back to his roots as a supreme heel. After he won, it was a relief to see him throw nothing at the crowd because he knew that this outcome was his pleasure alone. He just crouched down and ate some grass. “When the crowd is chanting ‘Roger,’ I hear ‘Novak,’ ” he said after the match, in all seriousness. “I know, it sounds silly, but it is like that, I try to convince myself that it’s like that.”
For all those people chanting “Roger,” in their minds or on their sofas if not at Centre Court, this match brought a funk so deep I was frankly embarrassed by it. Instead of watching this old man defeat his two greatest rivals en route to a ninth title on his favorite court, I was left wondering if he’d ever arrive on this stage again. This match was far too close to draw any conclusions about the relative strength between these two rivals. No one has ever profited from writing off Roger Federer prematurely, and there is nothing about his current play or the field of competition that suggests he will fall from his perch. All you can do is point at the fact that he turns 38 next month. And now, all that separates Federer’s 20 majors from Djokovic’s 16 is a solid season-and-a-half of present Djokovic.
At 32, Djokovic might already be the greatest men’s tennis player of all time, but the case should be bulletproof by the time he reaches the age Federer is now. Every fandom will marshal increasingly exotic GOAT arguments ad hoc to reinforce their priors. I have nothing so sophisticated on hand, just the impression that I have never seen a style of tennis better suited to beat a greater breadth of players. Djokovic’s game plan rarely varies or wavers, because it doesn’t have to. Being impossible to hit through is a solution to everyone, on any surface. Federer acolytes like to say that their man has perfected a certain tactical and aesthetic ideal; Djokovic’s game offers a bracing reminder that tennis is a game to be won, not a painting to be painted. Half-volleys scraped off the shoe tops are one way to win; an impenetrable fortress is another. Novak Djokovic wins by virtue of being the most difficult man to beat. At Wimbledon, in those three sets, he just closed off the possibility of being beaten, and he wasn’t.