WIMBLEDON, England –Novak Djokovic may not have been the better player from first ball to last in Sunday’s Wimbledon final.
But he produced nerves of steel when it mattered most, blasting the shots, avoiding the costly errors and saving the two match points required to defeat 37-year-old Roger Federer, who had both artistry and the Centre Court crowd on his side in pursuit of a 21st major title.
It was Djokovic’s trophy to raise at the end of a four-hour, 57-minute, exceptionally contested match. With his 7-6 (5), 1-6, 7-6 (4), 4-6, 13-12 (3) victory, Djokovic claimed his fifth Wimbledon championship and the 16th major of his career to pull within two of Rafael Nadal’s mark and four of Federer’s all-time mark, which, for now, is paused at 20.
It was Wimbledon’s first singles championship settled under the tournament’s new fifth-set format, instituted to prevent soul-sapping marathons like the three-day affair between John Isner and Nicolas Mahut, which was dragged on until 26-24. And it was the longest final in Wimbledon history.
Already the world No. 1, the 32-year-old Djokovic has now won four of the last five majors, closing quickly on the standard of perfection Federer has set in his two-decade pro career.
Djokovic calmly strode to the net when a miss-hit by Federer ended the tiebreak, and the two exchanged pats on the back.
Sunday’s final was the 48th career meeting between the two. And it was fitting that Wimbledon’s final came down to them, the field of 128 ultimately narrowed to the tournament’s No. 1 (Djokovic) and No. 2 (Federer) seeds.
Moreover, they owned more Wimbledon singles titles than any other active male competitor: Federer, an eight-time champion; Djokovic, the four-time and defending champion.
They were greeted by a standing ovation and rousing cheers when Djokovic led Federer onto Centre Court. Looking on from the front row of the Royal Box were the Duke and Duchess of Cambridge, with 80-year-old Rod Laver, the inspiration for both players, just behind, along with former Wimbledon champions Stefan Edberg, John Newcombe, Manuel Santana and Stan Smith.
To have a chance, most prognosticators said, the 37-year-old Federer needed to win the opening set.
The proceedings veered from that script.
Federer took the higher risk approach in a first set of exceptional shot-making and touch. There was scarcely a grass-blade’s difference between them in quality, so it came down to a tiebreaker that Djokovic claimed.
If Federer was frustrated by 58 minutes of wasted effort in dropping the opening set, he redirected it magnificently, bolting to a 4-0 lead in the second set while Djokovic took a mental walkabout, much as he had in Friday’s semifinal after claiming the opening set before winning in four. With the Serb seemingly disengaged, Federer needed just 25 minutes to level the match by claiming the second set.
The match unfolded in utter silence from the competitors. There wasn’t a grunt, groan or shout of “C’mon!” between them - whether the restraint reflected their respect for one another, for their sport’s most hallowed venue or was a tactical decision to devote their energy into each point.
The third set was as tightly contested as the first.
Once again, a tiebreak was required to settle it. The Serb jumped out to a 4-1 lead and held on to take a two-sets-to-one lead.
The physical and psychological toll was surely profound on Federer, who found himself staring at a two-sets-to-one deficit at the two hour, 15-minute mark.
Instead of fading in the fourth set, Federer broke Djokovic’s serve in the third game and held his own to take a 4-2 lead that thrilled the crowd, which erupted in cheers for the Swiss, the prospect of a fifth set or both.
The crowd got its wish.
And Federer and Djokovic produced a fifth set that was worth the price of admission.
Djokovic was first to nudge ahead, 4-2, after breaking Federer’s serve for just the second time in the match.
When Federer immediately broke back, even guests in the Royal Box dropped any pretense of impartiality, cheering the fight still left in the Swiss.
Djokovic had his share of fight, too. At risk of losing his serve at 5-5, which would have essentially gift-wrapped the victory for the Swiss, Djokovic lunged full-out to stab back a winning volley. Neither budged.
So at 6-6, the match just shy of the four-hour mark, they played on for the two-game lead required to win in the fifth set.
The stadium erupted when Federer got the service break he needed by toying with the pace and trajectory of his shots and coaxing Djokovic into errors.
Djokovic roared back, saving two match points to draw even again, at 8-8.
And on they played.