WIMBLEDON, England – It is hard enough to win a Wimbledon final in normal circumstances. Novak Djokovic has had to play his finals against great players on the road.
Perhaps he deserves extra credit in the record books. Perhaps he does not. But what is indisputable is that he keeps climbing higher in them.
Sunday’s 7-6 (1), 6-7 (10), 6-4, 6-3 victory over Roger Federer, which gave Djokovic a third Wimbledon title and his ninth Grand Slam singles title, was not what most of the Centre Court crowd was craving.
Federer, who will turn 34 next month, is one of the most beloved figures in world sport, and he hit many a high note on his way to the final and in an extraordinary second-set tiebreaker Sunday in which he saved seven set points to level the match.
A lesser player would have taken the hint and stepped out of the way of the Federer bandwagon, but Djokovic - the world’s No. 1 player and one of the great shock absorbers in tennis history - is made of tougher stuff.
“At the end he was rock solid; I thought he played great,” Federer said in his postmatch remarks. “I didn’t play bad myself, so I can be very happy as well.”
Perhaps not right away. The bottom line in competitive terms is that after losing a thrilling five-set final to Djokovic here last year, Federer lost a not-nearly-as-suspenseful four-set final to Djokovic here this year. It would not be a surprise if Federer never reached another Wimbledon final after winning seven titles, his most recent in 2012.
“You sort of walk away empty-handed,” Federer said. “For me, a finals trophy is not the same. Everybody knows that. Thankfully I’ve won here in the past so it does not feel like I’m chasing anything. But clearly I would have loved to win.”
Federer was in full flow in his victory over Andy Murray in the semifinals Friday: hitting line after line and corner after corner; making the astute call on tactic after tactic, even getting most of his challenges correct. But Djokovic provided a higher level of resistance, and their great rivalry, which began in 2006, is now tied at 20 victories apiece.
That, in a sense, is the downside of Federer’s remarkable longevity. Arguably the greatest player ever, he now does not have a winning record against either of his principal rivals: Djokovic or Rafael Nadal, who leads their series, 23-10 (Federer has a 13-11 edge over Murray).
Federer and Djokovic have had their differences through the years. Djokovic’s coach, Boris Becker, who was in the stands Sunday, made a point of mentioning before the tournament that Federer and Djokovic do not get along particularly well.
But there was much more outstanding tennis than discernable animosity Sunday. Djokovic sportingly applauded a beautifully timed Federer drop volley winner at an important stage of the second set. (Djokovic has good taste.) He also made a point of reaching out to Federer during the trophy ceremony.
“It’s always a great privilege playing against Roger,” he said. “He’s done so much for our sport on and off the court, and he’s definitely someone a lot of players from my generation were looking up to and following his lead.”
Tennis generations are of course more condensed than regular generations. Djokovic is 28 - just five years younger than Federer - and in the prime of his career.
“I think Novak played not only great today but the whole two weeks, plus the whole year, plus last year, plus the year before that,” said Federer, getting a laugh from the Centre Court crowd.
Djokovic is a clear No. 1, just as Federer is now a clear No. 2. But Federer still has a big lead in the career standings with a record 17 Grand Slam singles titles to Djokovic’s nine.
Federer was the one on the biggest roll coming into the final, having dropped serve just once in the tournament and putting 76 percent of his first serves into play against Murray. But Djokovic broke him four times Sunday and allowed Federer the luxury of only a single break as he won 74 percent of the points on his own first serve and, just as importantly, 60 percent of the points on his second serve.
But in the end, he did not even have to deal with the angst of serving for the title, breaking Federer’s serve instead in the final game. He was soon reaching down and having his now-traditional postmatch snack of Centre Court grass, just a small bite.
“It tasted very, very good this year,” he said. “I don’t know what the groundspeople have done, but they’ve done a great job.”