Watching Maestro Roger Federer span 12 years of beautiful tennis at Wimbledon is the centerpiece to tennis’ most glamorous golden age. Somehow his result in losing to Novak Djokovic for the 2014 championship is less the story than a living renewal of yet another brilliant performance that only extends his legacy.
It’s as if The Beatles could have put out another album in 1972. Federermania has actually been a creative force longer than Beatlemania, and in the tennis world, it is the very standard of masterpiece theatre.
There have been other incomparable champions at tennis’ holy cathedral, the All England Club, and they can all be summarized and remembered in the Open era as unique and brilliant originals:
Bjorn Borg’s self-made assimilation of topspin-approach tennis at a time of wooden rackets, as if Johannes Gutenberg were trying to digitalize his printing press.
John McEnroe’s old-school brilliance was a textbook to tennis’ past. He was a tennis Raphael, both painter and architect with his touch and angles.
Pete Sampras’ power serve and volley are still the greatest dominance on grass. He was efficient, ruthless and unconquerable as if the industrial revolution had sprung up in the middle of Ancient Greece.
And yet, Federer’s longevity and artistry on grass is an entire museum of seemingly tangible performance marvels.
He’s the embodiment of an heroic evolution that has taken one decade of tennis and advanced it 30 years. He has adapted through new conditions and competitors on grass, and under the scrutiny and expectations of a technically wired global audience, taking the entire sport of tennis with him as his competitors morphed into unrelenting cyborgs, designed to counter his genius.
How do you sort out his greatest matches? Even if we narrow this down to the nine times he has appeared in a Wimbledon final, it’s a Bayeux Tapestry with more richness and astonishing matches than should be possible for any one player.
Maybe it should be forbidden to compare Federer’s great Wimbledon five-set finals with each other, as if we were rating his sets of twins. In a way the symmetry is also fitting: Two brilliant five-set wins (2007, 2009) and two brilliant five-set losses (2008, 2014).
But great art deserves more than a silent stroll and a nod through a museum. It beckons for admiration and discussion, sharing and memories. We are compelled to ask the question: Was Federer’s 2014 Wimbledon final his greatest performance at the All England Club?
2007 vs. Rafael Nadal
In 2007, Federer was completing the most dominant four-year run in tennis history. He would win 11 of the 16 major titles in that time (2004-2007) and so thoroughly dominate his own generation that many tennis observers to this day wonder how it was possible one man could obliterate the entire ATP tour. It’s even taken on mythical framing and explanations, and the shouting has never been silenced.
The best part of the 2007 Wimbledon final was finally seeing Federer pushed somewhere other than Roland Garros—where clay-king Rafael Nadal was already building his own impregnable dynasty. And it was Nadal, Federer’s nemesis and biggest matchup nightmare, who showed the Wimbledon world just how great Federer could be.
Could Federer win a close, five-set match against another legendary champion rather than a flawed contender? The 2007 final answered this once and for all. The scoreline showed Federer winning 7-6(7), 4-6, 7-6(3), 2-6, 6-2, but the drama and set exchanges brought out the best tennis at Centre Court since 1980.
There was history as Bjorn Borg watched Federer equal his record of five consecutive Wimbledon titles. For his part, Federer had now won 54 straight matches on grass, including 34 straight at the All England Club.
Federer also had to battle the frustrations of Nadal’s baseline tenacity and of the seemingly conspiratorial Hawk-Eye replay system that decided in Nadal's favor three critical times, including at the start of the fourth set. “It's just killing me today. How in the world was that ball in?” Federer ranted at chair umpire Carlos Ramos.
Meanwhile, Nadal had ripped through Federer in the fourth set, taken a medical timeout for his knee and had looked ready to dethrone the Swiss Maestro.
But it was Federer who held on early in the fifth, regrouped and then turned on his familiar dose of dominance with awesome serving, big forehands and an avalanche of will. It punctuated perhaps his greatest victory, all things considered. Later, ESPN’s SportsCenter segments questioned if this was the greatest match in history.
It was his last victory against Nadal in a major, and it might have been the most impressive win of Federer’s career. It displayed his greatness in winning an epic match, showing the resilience and toughness that has propelled him to 17 major titles and countless other records.
2008 vs. Rafael Nadal
If 2007 was the absolute peak of Federer’s career, 2008 Wimbledon was his toughest defeat in the blockbuster Wimbledon trilogy. Even so, he summoned up a match for the ages against Nadal that would not be decided until the sun set forever on their Wimbledon rivalry.
Two legendary champions battling it out in their prime years. It would come to overshadow the 2007 final through another round of “greatest match ever” hoopla. It even spawned L. Jon Wertheim’s book Strokes of Genius, and it was the autobiographical vehicle in Rafa with John Carlin.
Nadal fans who like the outcome would be more inclined to name this the greatest match of all time; so how can Federer fans find solace in a 6-4, 6-4, 6-7(5), 6-7(8), 9-7 loss?
Certainly Federer chased Nadal since the coin toss, but he never stopped digging in, cracking his forehand and looking for a way back. It was a new role for him after being primarily a dominant front-runner in previous years.
In between rain delays and soul searching, the drama increased with a fourth-set tiebreaker when Federer staved off two match points.
He produced 13 break-point opportunities, but as usual his frustrations with his single backhand against Nadal’s lefty serve on the ad side of the court was like drinking coffee with a fork. He would only convert one of these breaks, and this in the fifth set when it seemed like he would pull off the win.
In addition, Federer had been routed at Roland Garros a month earlier by Nadal. A lesser champion would have packed it in after two sets, let alone raised his game to nearly pull off a comeback for the ages in a match for all times.
2009 vs. Andy Roddick
Andy Roddick was a good champion, but Federer always had another gear. Perhaps their 2004 Wimbledon final confirmed this more than anything.
Roddick bombed serves, unleashed big forehands and pushed Federer for a chance to establish a rivalry. It was not enough. He would ultimately be no match for the Swiss Maestro a year later at Wimbledon and for the 2006 U.S. Open final. It was no more a rivalry than Muhammad Ali against his punching bag.
But in the 2009 Wimbledon final, Roddick summoned up the greatest effort of his career. He served up scorching aces, but he also defended the baseline with his life. Had it not been for blowing a 6-2 tiebreaker lead, including a botched backhand volley at 6-5, Roddick would have had a two-set lead.
The match itself was a slugfest of serving, more reminiscent of the 1990s with Sampras and Goran Ivanisevic throwing rocks at each other. But Federer was locked into the challenge of keeping pace with Roddick’s big serve as if their thunderbolts were to decide the fate of the world. Federer would also hit 50 aces in the match to Roddick’s 27.
In the fifth set, Federer simply would not relent. At 8-8, Roddick threatened with two break points at 15-40, but Federer wiped them away with his big eraser—two huge serves.
“I ask you to kill Superman, and you’re telling me you couldn’t even do that one, simple thing,” stammered malevolent CEO Ross Webster to meek employee Gus Gorman in Superman III. For Roddick, defeating Federer turned out to be a tougher impossibility.
Federer would win his only break of serve for the entire match, with Roddick trying to hold on at 14-15. He completed the Channel Slam (French Open-Wimbledon within one month) for the only time of his career, and he won his record-breaking 15th major, as Sampras looked on through sunglasses. It would be the last time Federer would win back-to-back majors.
The line reads 5-7, 7-6(6), 7-6(5), 3-6, 16-14. Was this Federer’s greatest Wimbledon final ever? Top three or four Wimbledon matches of all time? Some fans could successfully argue that this one tops them all. It might have been Federer’s greatest triumph.
2014 vs. Djokovic
An instant classic needs time to simmer and let the emotions evaporate. We know that Federer vs. Djokovic was a great match for several reasons, but where does it rank in the Federer collection of greatest hits?
Federer is nearly 33 years old, so does that make his recent loss more impressive than if he were 23 or 28? Did his struggles in 2013 make this performance more special?
Was Federer 2014 better than Wimbledon champion Federer 2012?
Was Andy Murray, Federer’s 2012 Wimbledon final opponent, better than 2014 Djokovic?
If Djokovic had closed out Federer for a 6-2 four-set victory, would we revisit this match?
Maybe tennis observers could compare Federer’s valiant comeback to the 2009 match against Andy Roddick, but there are far more differences than similarities. The Roddick match, more like a rock fight, did not become truly magical until the tension of the fifth set. The ending was the drama.
In more ways, Federer vs. Djokovic mirrored the 2008 final vs. Nadal. Federer had to save two championship points in the fourth set, and then it looked as if he could ride his momentum to a win. In both cases he could not quite hold on against great returners.
There was a very high quality of play and contrast with Federer vs. Djokovic, plenty of drama from the fourth set and late into the fifth. Federer would end the match with 75 winners and only 29 unforced errors. Djokovic would have only 68 and 27 respectively. This was clean and aggressive tennis.
Both players dealt efficiently with their strengths and control. Federer’s slice shots and ability to draw Djokovic out of his rhythm took guile, grit and the support of his newer, larger racket. He also employed more of the mentality he needed from coach Stefan Edberg’s modified and flexible blueprint.
Unfortunately for Federer, a few unforced errors assisted a more abrupt and anticlimactic ending. The returning pressure from Djokovic outlasted Federer’s serving, and he deserves all the credit in the world for his 6-7(7), 6-4, 7-6(4), 5-7, 6-4 win.
Maybe the better question is taken from the Djokovic angle: Was this a better or more epic win than his five-set marathon against Nadal at the 2012 Australian Open?
Djokovic spoke of this comparison (h/t the George Herald):
Sincerely, this has been the best quality Grand Slam final that I have ever been part of. I've had a longest final against Nadal in the (2012) Australian Open. But quality-wise from the first to last point, this is definitely the best match. It's the most special Grand Slam final I've played.
Federer did not win his 18th major, but he could have. His talent and heart were proved long ago, but the continued saga of his exploits is still astonishing, regardless of the context. He is the common denominator for four fairly recent Wimbledon classics, and yet we almost come to expect it.