It was a battle fitting for two of the greatest men's tennis players of all time. The serves were crisp. The returns painted the lines to such a point that multiple zoomed-in reviews were needed. The margin of separation between Novak Djokovic and Roger Federer was so thin that the entire match felt like it could swing on a point-to-point basis.
In the end, Djokovic's youth barely overcame Federer's grass-court mastery.
Djokovic defeated Federer 6-7 (7), 6-4, 7-6 (4), 5-7, 6-4 in a hard-fought, enthralling five-set classic to earn the 2014 Wimbledon Championship on Sunday. The top-seeded Serb and fourth-seeded Swiss went back and forth for three hours and 56 minutes, trading punches and counterpunches like two prizefighters in their prime.
When Federer pelted aces, Djokovic came back the next point with a blistering return. When Djokovic sent Federer flailing in a poor attempt to return his forehand, FedEx sent the next point to the chalk line himself.
Assessing the match as a whole, it's nearly impossible to find much separation between the pair. Djokovic won 186 points to Federer's 180. He had 27 unforced errors to Federer's 29, and the Swiss actually had seven more winners. Looking forward for Federer, there has not been a better affirmation of his comeback 2014 season than Sunday afternoon in London.
Djokovic just made a couple extra shots when they counted.
One came when he found an elusive break point in the second set. With his back against the wall after dropping a first-set tiebreak, Djokovic's fortitude became apparent right away. He pushed Federer to the brink on his first serve of the set and then earned the first break point of the match on his opponent's second.
In a match between two of the most dominant servers in the world, a break can be as good as a set win. Djokovic held the rest of the way to put himself back in the match with a 6-4 win. The clutch gene was pervasive with the world No. 2, who kept building momentum as Federer's legs seemingly began to wane.
Winning the third set would require another tiebreaker, after neither Federer nor Djokovic even had so much as a break point. The pair traded off the first six points of the tiebreak on serve, but unforced errors from Federer wound up swinging the result. Two errors on forehands dropped Federer behind 5-3, and Djokovic finished the set—and, to a certain extent, the match—with a masterful serve at 7-4.
The third-set win proved especially critical because it allowed Djokovic to be in control. Heading into the match, Djokovic knew Federer's precision and aggressiveness can be a death sentence when he starts feeling things going in his favor.
"The key against him in the game," Djokovic told reporters before the match, "is trying to not allow him to dictate too much because he likes to be very aggressive, he likes to come to the net. I'm going to have to be able to get as many returns back in the court and try to also stay closer to the line, protect the baseline."
The tiebreaker defeat seemed to shake Federer, who went from infallible on his serves to suddenly very vulnerable. He hit 13 aces in the third set. He had been broken once all match.
In the fourth set, however, Djokovic took two of Federer's first three serves and found himself returning the ball with far more ease and precision.
But just as everyone was preparing the trophy for Djokovic at 5-2, Federer showed why he has the most Grand Slams in history. He held his own serve and broke Djokovic in consecutive serve opportunities to take the next five games. A match that had seen one break total in the first three sets saw five alone in the fourth.
In gambling terms, the match had firmly gone "on tilt." Federer forcing a fifth set after being down to championship point is among the more improbable moments in recent Wimbledon history. Set point also tested the always-seemingly-in-question resolve for Djokovic, who was at times battling leg issues and the overwhelming roar of the pro-Federer crowd.
Few will question that resolve after the fifth set.
With Federer again moving like he did at the beginning of the match—perhaps sensing his moment coming—Djokovic steadied himself beautifully. He recaptured his serve, scored a critical break and held on as Federer's final shot went crashing into the net.
For Djokovic, this win is a long time coming. He had not won a major championship since the 2013 Australian Open, a period in which Rafael Nadal firmly supplanted him as the No. 1 player in the world. As Nadal seemed to toy with him in last month's French Open, there was a clearly defined hierarchy separating the sport's best two players.
Djokovic can now begin staking his claim again heading back to the hard courts. He's been to two of the three Grand Slam finals this year and won one—the same ratio as Nadal. They both have four calendar-year titles. Given Djokovic's longstanding excellence on hard courts and Nadal's status as the defending U.S. Open champion, the lead-up to Flushing will be interesting.
Few can chisel holes into Djokovic's all-time resume now either. For much of his prime, the criticism has been that he's "only" won two non-Australian Open majors. With Sunday's victory, he's taken Wimbledon twice and now has seven overall. That puts him equivalent to John McEnroe and one ahead of his coach, Boris Becker.
For Federer, if this is the last hurrah, he sure made it a great one. The 17-time Slam champion turns 33 next month. Should he find a way to get another major under his belt, he would be the oldest to do so since Ken Rosewall in 1972. No matter our advancement in technology, Father Time waits for no one—something Federer himself has continually acknowledged.
“You’ve got to love the game, because if you don’t love it, then it’s just going to be too hard,” Federer told reporters. “I think that’s kept me going quite easily, actually, because I know why I’m playing tennis. Deep down, that’s really important.”
I’ll forever wish I could have watched Jack Nicklaus play golf in his prime, but not sure I’d trade it for these years of Roger Federer.— Shane Bacon (@shanebacon) July 6, 2014
It's unclear how much longer Federer will keep loving the game. There comes a time for every great athlete when he weighs the cost versus the benefit of continuing to play and steps away. Pete Sampras' endpoint came after his record 14th Slam title. Andre Agassi fought into his late 30s until his body finally broke down.
Federer's final path remains to be carved out. But as long as he's still capable of days like Sunday, of matches like the one he played against Djokovic, the sport will be better off for having him.
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