A GREAT champion won the men’s singles title yesterday, winning a classic final 6-7, 6-4, 7-6, 5-7, 6-4. An even greater champion lost.
Novak Djokovic, by common consent the tennis player with the toughest mentality on the planet, had to dig deeper than ever before into his reserves of self-belief after failing to convert a match point in the fourth set against Roger Federer. In an agonising ten minutes that followed, he went from the brink of victory to the loss of that set, and the prospect of a fourth successive defeat in a Grand Slam final became a very real one.
For Federer, winning that fourth set revived the dream of becoming the only man ever to win eight singles titles here. He joined William Renshaw and Pete Sampras on seven when he beat Andy Murray in 2012, and, with his 33rd birthday coming up next month, he knows his remaining time at the top is limited.
The majority of the Centre Court crowd, which included Sir Chris Hoy and David Beckham in the Royal Box, were desperate to see the Swiss player take that eighth championship, and their hope was also renewed when, almost out of nowhere, Federer took the contest into a fifth set. Midway through it, they sensed their dream was on the brink of becoming reality when Federer held a break point to go 4-3 ahead.
But Djokovic refused to let go. Refused to accept a fourth major loss in a row, a sixth defeat in his last seven Slam finals. Refused to bow to the sentiment of the crowd, who already knew they were witnessing one of the greatest finals of all, but also wanted to become witnesses to history by seeing Federer triumph.
The top seed’s chance came when his opponent, five years his elder, displayed a touch of tiredness when serving at 4-5. An overhit shot gave Djokovic two more match points: he only needed one, as Federer sent a backhand into the net. After almost four hours, Djokovic had triumphed, claiming his second Wimbledon crown and his seventh Grand Slam title – and regaining the world No 1 ranking into the bargain.
The crowd, as they had done when the players came on to the court at 2pm, rose to give both men a standing ovation. If the match had fallen a little short of the all-time classic between Federer and Rafael Nadal in 2008, they still knew they had seen something extremely special. And, for all that the great man said “See you next year” when interviewed on court, there was also a bittersweet feeling that they might have seen him lose his last chance of that unique eighth title.
He had done everything within his power to get it, and made his attacking intentions clear from the start by rushing into the net whenever possible. But it was Djokovic who made the better beginning, serving more strongly and defending more successfully. Even so, the Serb’s superiority was marginal, and not enough to force a single break point throughout the regulation length of the set.
The tiebreak was another matter, as Federer seized a mini-break on the opening point then raced into a 3-0 lead. Djokovic hit back from that unpromising position, as he had done in the fourth set of his semi-final against Grigor Dimitrov, and had set points at 6-5 and 7-6. But he failed to convert them, and failed, too, to prevent Federer from converting his own first set point, returning a backhand into the net to lose the tiebreak 9-7.
After an opening set of such breathtaking quality, it was all but inevitable that the standard would drop a little in the second. Perhaps losing his concentration a little after the massive effort of getting ahead, Federer had to save two break points in the opening game. He gifted Djokovic a break point in his next service game with a double fault, and a crosscourt backhand passing shot did the rest.
Having taken that 2-1 advantage, the No 1 seed remained in control for almost the entire duration of the set. He erred significantly just once, when a wild forehand allowed Federer a break point to close to 5-5. But his serve got him out of trouble, and three points later it was a set apiece.
Neither man blinked in the first ten games of the third set, with not a single deuce, never mind a break point. Serving at 4-4, Federer delivered four aces in a row. He was not so clever two games later and needed to save two break points to force the tiebreak.
This time Djokovic made no mistake, and was only behind on the opening point, a Federer ace. Seven-four to the Serb, and a two-sets-to-one lead.
Even the fittest and most gifted of competitors have their lean spells in long matches, and Federer’s came at the start of the fourth set when, looking tired and maybe a little disheartened too, he allowed his opponent an early break. That put Djokovic 3-1 ahead, but the next two games were also breaks, suggesting that the top seed, too, was beginning to feel fatigue.
Serving for the match at 5-3, Djokovic was too tentative, and he lost the game when he slipped and fell at one corner of the court while Federer calmly flicked a winner to the other.
Then came the game on which the match, and tennis history, might have turned. At match point, his first serve was ruled a fault, but he challenged, and Hawk-Eye decreed it had been an ace. Federer won that game to make it three in a row from 5-2 down, and he won two more to take the set, completing a majestic recovery from match point down.
There was nothing between the men in the first half of the deciding set, and precious little in the second. Perhaps, in the end, the determining factor was simply the five years’ age difference.
Victory could help Djokovic find new life at the top of the game after a couple of years of relative disappointment. Defeat for Federer will do nothing to alter the unshakable belief of so many that he is the finest player ever to have walked on a grass court.
Djokovic is the Wimbledon champion of 2014. Federer, no matter that he lost yesterday, and no matter if he never wins another title, is the Wimbledon champion of all time.