Novak Djokovic admitted last night that his biggest rival in the Wimbledon final was not Roger Federer, the eight-time champion in front of him, but the 15,000 fans packed into Centre Court.
From first ball till last, they were cheering for their favourite, Federer. Even in the normally decorous Royal Box, the suited and booted were out of their posh, padded chairs to roar and cheer when Federer broke back in the fifth set.
Djokovic said: “When the crowd is chanting ‘Roger’ I hear ‘Novak’,” he said. “It sounds silly, but it is like that. I try to convince myself that it’s like that.
“That was one thing that I promised myself coming on to the court today, that I need to stay calm and composed, because I knew that the atmosphere will be as it was.
“Obviously Roger is playing well. I mean, I kind of predicted the scenarios in my head already, visualised what’s going to happen.”
The 7-6, 1-6, 7-6, 4-6, 7-6 win took three minutes shy of five hours, almost all of which was an emotional rollercoaster for both men. Federer was the better player but it was Djokovic who found a way to win. Because that is what Djokovic does time and again: he mops up the pressure and the tension and then he wears the opposition down. “It was probably the most demanding, mentally most demanding, match I was ever part of,” he said. “I had the most physically demanding match against Nadal in the finals of Australia that went almost six hours. But mentally this was different level, because of everything.
“It’s hard to not be aware [of the crowd]. You have that kind of electric atmosphere, that kind of noise, especially in some decisive moments where we’re quite even. It’s one way or another. The crowd gets into it.
“Of course, if you have the majority of the crowd on your side, it helps, it gives you motivation, it gives you strength, it gives you energy. When you don’t, then you have to find it within, I guess.”
Federer had two match points in that fifth set. Two clean aces told of his intent but then the moment was taken from him by the Serb everyone was loving to hate.
For Federer, at 37, to come so close to victory on a court that he thinks of as his own, was a bitter blow. Who knows whether he will ever be able to turn in a performance like that, over five sets, again in a major final?
“It’s similar to getting broken when you’re serving for the match: take it on your chin, you move on,” Federer said. “You try to forget, try to take the good things out of this match. There’s just tons of it.
“Like similar to ’08 [final] maybe (which he lost in five sets to Rafael Nadal). I will look back at it and think, ‘well, it’s not that bad after all’. For now it hurts, and it should, like every loss does here at Wimbledon.
“I think it’s a mindset. I’m very strong at being able to move on because I don’t want to be depressed about actually an amazing tennis match.”
Djokovic now has 16 grand slam trophies to his name; Nadal has 18 and Federer has 20. He is closing in on the two rivals he has chased around the grand slam circuit for the past 11 years, since he won his first title at the Australian Open in 2008. Federer is still the GOAT (Greatest Of All Time) but Djokovic wants that crown and, at 32, he has plenty of more years ahead of him to get it.
“I’m getting closer, but also they’re winning slams,” Djokovic said. “We’re kind of complementing each other. We’re making each other grow and evolve and still be in this game.
“I think those two guys [Federer and Nadal] are probably one of the biggest reasons I still compete at this level. The fact that they made history of this sport motivates me as well, inspires me to try to do what they have done, what they’ve achieved, and even more.
“Whether I’m going to be able to do it or not, I don’t know. I mean, I’m not really looking at age as a restriction of any kind for me at least.”
Yet Federer is long since over that sort of thing. He broke the biggest record of his career 10 years ago when he overtook Pete Sampras’s then record of 14 grand slam singles titles. If Djokovic wants his record, he can have it; it will not deter the Swiss from playing, competing and trying to find a way to win.
“I didn’t become a tennis player for that,” he said. “I really didn’t. It’s about trying to win Wimbledon, trying to have good runs here, playing in front of such an amazing crowd in this Centre Court against players like Novak and so forth. That’s what I play for.”
So did Federer see any similarity between yesterday’s epic five-setter, the longest men’s final in Wimbledon history, and his 2008 final with Nadal, the match regarded by many as the greatest match ever played? Not really.
“I’m the loser both times,” he said, “so that’s the only similarity I see.”