History is a hell of an opponent: just ask Roger Federer. He has been facing down the might of the past for more than a decade and, these days, it is the only real rival he has left.
It seems that every week the eight-time Wimbledon champion (a record in itself) sets a new benchmark or rewrites another page in the history books. Today he will play in his 31st grand slam final (a record, obviously), he is trying to win his 21st grand slam title (breaking his own record of 20) and he will be making his 12th appearance in a Wimbledon final (so overwriting another of his own entries in the log books of the sport).
Yet in Novak Djokovic, Federer faces another history-maker, one who wants everything Federer already has and more. Since he reignited his competitive fire last year – and recovered from a longstanding elbow injury – the Serb has been open and clear in his goals: he wants to be the best there has ever been.
“I don’t see this as my job or as my work,” Djokovic said after beating Roberto Bautista Agut in the semi-final. “I’ve done enough in my career so I can stop tennis, professional tennis, at any time.
“Of course, I am looking to make history in this sport. Of course, I would love to have a shot at as many grand-slam titles as possible. Those are probably the top goals and ambitions. Next to that is the historic No 1, which is not so far away.”
Federer holds the record for the most number of weeks spent at the top of the rankings – 310 weeks – but now Djokovic is closing in fast on that number. So far, he has spent 260 weeks as No 1 and there does not seem to be anyone around who can depose him.
But what Djokovic wants more than anything else is the love and respect that Federer gets by the bucketload wherever he plays. People love Federer; they hang on every word he says and they purr when he plays. At Wimbledon, they fell head over heels in love with the Swiss when he won back in 2003 and they have been having a passionate affair with him ever since. Djokovic? Not so much. It clearly rankles. And that might just make the difference in the final.
On paper, Djokovic is the clear favourite. He leads their rivalry with 25 wins to Federer’s 22. He has beaten the Swiss in two previous Wimbledon finals (2014 and 15) and has not loss to the old GOAT (Greatest Of All Time) since 2015. The master of defence, he has the strength of an ox, the endurance of a triathlete and the flexibility of a gymnast.
On court, though, there will be only one favourite: Federer. Of the 15,000 or so sitting around Centre Court, the vast majority will be cheering, ooh-ing and ahh-ing and generally making their undying love for Federer felt. And if Djokovic allows that to get under his skin, is could be the end of his chances.
For all his experience and success, Djokovic has the thinnest of skins. Even in the semi-final, a match he showed no real sign of losing, he was fuming when the crowd cheered Bautista Agut for winning the second set. Cupping his ears and sarcastically gesturing to the crowd to make more noise, he was growling and grumbling.
Fortunately for Djokovic, Bautista Agut was not good enough to make the most of the moment. But Dominic Thiem at the French Open was. Raging that they were forced to play in the windy conditions, Djokovic allowed the circumstances and his perceived sense of injustice to get to him. It cost him – he lost.
That may be the fraction of a percentage point that tips the balance for Federer. At the age of 37 and facing the relentless winning machine from Serbia, it may be Federer’s only chance to win. But stranger things have happened in major finals before.