By the end of Sunday evening, one of Novak Djokovic or Roger Federer would have lost 8—that’s right—8 Grand Slam Finals.
It was the 7-time Wimbledon Champion that became the man with this rather bittersweet record. Many players don’t reach a total of 8 career finals in their lives, and here, we were waiting for one of these two great modern-day champions to lose their eighth final, or perhaps win their 9th or 18th title.
In many ways, Novak Djokovic established himself as the defining player of an era. He can go down as one of the all-time greats, simply because he has reached the pinnacle of his sport in an era that boasts of Rafael Nadal, Roger Federer and Andy Murray. That takes some doing. And Nole has done it, day after day, year after year, heartbreak after glorious heartbreak.
A month ago, Djokovic was shattered by a Swiss Player and denied a record that many greats chased through their careers. Players like Sampras and McEnroe couldn’t get it, while lesser Champions like Agassi did it—a Career Slam, on all four surfaces. Djokovic lost his French Open Final to Wawrinka, and came into Wimbledon with a sore mind and a heavy heart.
He labored his way to the final, after somehow managing to survive against big-serving Kevin Anderson in the fourth round, coming back from two sets down. On the other hand, he had to face another Swiss player—a legend—in the final once again. Roger Federer had glided and floated into the final. In one of his best performances for years, he swatted aside in-form Andy Murray in the semifinal. That match was of high quality; Murray was beaten, not disgraced.
Then came the final—a repeat of the 2014 final which went to 5 sets. Federer looked the better player throughout the tournament. But form didn’t count on the biggest stage of all. There was no way 28-year old Djokovic would go down without a fight in yet another final. He wouldn’t be able to take it if he lost another major final, as mentally strong as he is.
The first set was perhaps Federer’s best chance. He broke Djokovic to love in the fifth game, and failed to consolidate after the Serb stepped it up to snatch the break back immediately. There were some glorious rallies, but most of all, Federer’s lack of first serves were wearing his own game down. He didn’t have the firepower to stay in long rallies, and was forced to be innovative and come to the net as much as possible.
When it went to the tiebreak, almost magically, the Serb found another gear. He destroyed Federer with some relentless play from the baseline, and with a bunch of first serves.
The second set had the Serb in cruise mode. He failed to convert a few break points, but again looked the better player in the tiebreak. At 6-3 up however, Federer proved why he still loved the game so much. And why the game loved him back. Centre Court went absolutely berserk when Federer displayed the defensive desperation of Nadal with two set points to save. He served his way back into it, and went neck to neck with the Serb till again, he was 10-9 down and on the verge of going two sets down. This time, Djokovic failed to serve it out, and Federer, on his own second serve, rushed ahead to cut off the angle and volley Djokovic’s return back into open court. Just like that, a set was snatched away from the defending Champion.
Now I’ve watched almost all the 40 matches these two have played against one another (20-20 after Sunday). And there’s a trend—if Federer loses a hard-fought tight set, he usually goes down without much of a fight. If Djokovic loses a tight draining set, there’s no such thing as ‘momentum’ that applies to them. He almost always hits back when Federer is still woozy from the adrenalin rush, only tightening up his defensive play and forcing Federer to make the errors. In the third set, Federer immediately had to save 2 break points in the first game. He did. Djokovic was then a break point down in the second game, and he saved it. 1-1, and Djokovic made his move with Federer still riding on ‘momentum’. He returned Federer’s serves with interest and broke him in the third game, before the crowd had even settled down. Just like that, he was ahead again. And usually, when he’s ahead, he almost never gives it back. He is probably the game’s greatest frontrunner right now. Federer found it impossible to penetrate his serve, and went down 6-4 in the third set, despite a rain break.
In another era, the roof would have closed down and given Federer an advantage. But nothing happened, and Federer again found himself gasping for space in the fourth set. Djokovic played him from side to side. He was just too solid for Federer’s unabashed aggression. The Swiss legend stopped playing for rallies altogether, and began swinging wildly at the Serb’s second serve. He made too many errors. Within twenty minutes, he was 15-40 down and 3-5 down in the fourth set. Djokovic took it with some pinpoint forehands, and became Wimbledon Champion for the third time.
Federer remains on 17 Grand Slam titles, and perhaps he will remain on the number. It doesn’t take away from what he has accomplished—but the loss of these consecutive Wimbledon finals will hurt him. He wants his last hurrah, but his hurrah has been lasting far more than most ‘downfalls’. He always hits back with some vintage form, but comes up short in a best-of-5 match against one of these players. He must find a way to win that last Slam fast, and New York could be his last chance. Fast courts, but faster opponents. You never know.
Till then, Djokovic will remain the best player of his era, a few years after Nadal became the best player of his era, only a few years after Federer became the best player of all time.
Yes. We are a fortunate lot.