SPEAKING on Centre Court, Novak Djokovic thanked Roger Federer for letting him win. Fat chance! The seven-time champion had thrown everything he could muster at the Serbian and had still come up short.
While many cited the passage of time, Federer always insisted that it was his bad back that had undermined his chances of adding to his 17 grand slam titles at Wimbledon last year. Twelve months on, and with that issue resolved, his hiccup-free progression to the men’s singles final supported that assertion. But while he didn’t have to worry about a back injury, try as he did, in the match that mattered most, he simply couldn’t shift the persistent and proverbial pain in the neck.
“I couldn’t figure out why I wasn’t breaking Novak’s serve or actually creating opportunities to put him under pressure. It was only in the fourth set when I was down a break that I started to understand more how to return him, which was a surprise for me because I’ve played him that many times.
“He was doing a good job on his serve, making a lot of high first‑serve percentage, staying aggressive from the baseline, not making any easy errors, all that stuff. But I kept believing and kept trying to play offensive tennis. I’m happy it paid off in some instances. As you can imagine, I’m very disappointed not being rewarded with victory but it was close. Novak deserved it at the end, clearly, but it was extremely close.”
It was a match where Djokovic kept applying the pressure. While Federer was just aggressive the Serb was more adept at dealing with that, waiting for his chances and pouncing when they arrived.
Had Federer won another title, he would have edged ahead of Pet Sampras with the most men’s trophies, he would also have become the oldest man to triumph in the singles in the open era. But he would not write off his ability to secure both those records one day.
Asked if he felt that might be his last appearance in a Wimbledon final, he shrugged. “You could have asked me exactly that question in 2003.” That was the year of his first victory on the famous SW19 lawns, “You don’t know. It’s totally the unknown. That’s the disappointment of an Olympic result, of a World Cup result, Wimbledon result, whatever it is. You’ve just got to wait and see. There is no guarantee that you’re going to be there again or not. Maybe there’s much more to come. It’s really impossible to answer that question. But this clearly makes me believe that this was just a stepping-stone to many more great things in the future.”
If he is to be denied again, he believes the foes will be familiar ones. He has been consistent in writing off the challenge posed by those out with the current group of grand slam winners, despite the hype surrounding some throughout these Championships. “Yeah, I don’t feel like a huge threat by them. I feel like, yeah, they’re good. There’s many good players from whatever, five or six to 20. But I feel like, if I’m playing well, I can control the field to a degree.”
But while the 32-year-old’s ability to match the likes of Djokovic, Rafa Nadal and Andy Murray over five sets in the majors that was not the issue on Centre Court yesterday.
The long rallies were supposed to be his enemy but staying with Djokovic through points that lasted 20-plus strikes was not a problem. In every sense of the word, he rallied well, coming from behind and fending off championship points before he eventually succumbed in the dying stages of the fifth set.
But mentally, if Federer had a desperate desire to add to his impressive Wimbledon record and end a two-year drought of grand slam triumphs, his opponent’s need to not lose appeared almost primal.
That could be the biggest issue facing the man often regarded as the best-ever. He loves to win but, perhaps, losing no longer hurts him as much as it does others.
“Clearly I was very sad walking off the court not with the winner’s trophy. I already have seven. It’s not like I need another one. But it would have been awfully nice to have it,” he said. ”It’s just nice being in Wimbledon finals. Winning or losing, it’s always special, even more so when the match was as dramatic as it was. It’s even more memorable when I see my kids there with my wife.
“That’s what touched me the most, to be quite honest. The disappointment of the match itself went pretty quickly. I was sad, for a few minutes, but so happy to see family and I got a lot of nice ovations from the crowd. That lifted me up and made me feel better so I got over it fairly quickly.”
There was a day when that sadness would have festered longer but, whether he is ready to write himself off or not, times have certainly changed.