Novak Djokovic largely went unnoticed most of this Wimbledon with everything else happening.
There was Roger Federer and Rafael Nadal’s semifinal blockbuster, Coco Gauff’s breakthrough and Serena Williams and Andy Murray played mixed doubles.
But the Serb has everyone’s attention now after beating Federer in a gripping, historic final Sunday.
He saved two match points on Federer’s serve to defeat the ever popular Swiss 7-6 (7-5) 1-6 7-6 (7-4) 4-6 13-12 (7-3) in four hours, 57 minutes — the longest singles final in tournament history. It came a day after Simona Halep downed Serena Williams in the women’s final in a quickfire 56 minutes.
How did Djokovic celebrate his fifth Wimbledon crown? As usual, by eating the grass.
“It tasted amazing,” Djokovic told reporters. “I’m still digesting it.”
It was the first time the final set tiebreak was used in a finale at Wimbledon, having been introduced this year after big servers John Isner and Kevin Anderson slugged it out for around seven hours in the 2018 semifinal that ended 26-24.
Match points came and went
Djokovic had earlier saved the two match points at 7-8 in the fifth. One came via a gutsy forehand pass.
It was a hat-trick of woe in that respect for the eight-time champion, who also saw Djokovic save match points against him in successive US Open semifinals in 2010 and 2011. Furthermore, Federer lost in the quarterfinals 12 months ago after holding a match point against Anderson.
Federer might be kicking himself for not capitalizing on the match points Sunday but also not finishing off Djokovic even earlier. Indeed he led the first tiebreak 5-3 and had a set point in the third prior to the tiebreak.
“He could have won in straight sets, in four, but big credit to Novak who mentally was strong out there,” Jonas Bjorkman, a former top five player in singles and doubles, told a pair of reporters. “He looked down, he still managed to come back and fight and that match point pass.
“Okay maybe it was not the best Federer approach but still at that time it was a great move to come forward and put on the pressure and Djokovic delivered.”
Federer struck an incredible 94 winners coupled with 62 unforced errors while Djokovic tallied 54 and 52, respectively. Federer also won 14 more points overall.
“I just feel like it’s an incredible opportunity missed,” he told reporters. “I can’t believe it.”
Federer lost the previous longest final at Wimbledon to Nadal 9-7 in the fifth set in 2008, a battle considered the greatest tennis match ever.
“This one is more straightforward maybe in some ways because we didn’t have rain delays, we didn’t have night coming in and all that stuff,” Federer said, comparing the two. “But sure, epic ending, so close, so many moments. I’m sure there’s similarities.
“I’m the loser both times, so that’s the only similarity I see.”
For parts of the contest, Djokovic looked out of sorts, though Federer’s attacking onslaught surely contributed.
But he played the tiebreaks better, despite the overwhelming majority of the 15,000 on center court rooting for his opponent.
“In the most important moments, all three tiebreaks I guess, if I can say so, I found my best game,” said Djokovic. “I thought most of the match I was on the back foot actually. I was defending. He was dictating the play.
“I just tried to fight and find a way when it mattered the most, which is what happened.”
His 16 majors have pulled the world No. 1 to within four of the Swiss for the first time ever.
No. 17 soon?
The top of the list in this Big Three era reads like this: Federer on 20, Nadal on 18 and Djokovic on 16.
Federer has edged Nadal for years, with Djokovic moving into sole possession of third ahead of Pete Sampras by virtue of his title at the Australian Open in January.
Next year could see an even more seismic shift, especially if Djokovic gets to 17 at the US Open in September where he will be — as it currently stands — the substantial favorite.
“It’s gonna be a tight race,” Bjorkman, beaten by Federer in the 2006 semifinals, said. “I think this was a massive loss for Roger in those terms because he’s not going to maybe have too many opportunities and I think the other two will have more chances than him purely because of age.”
At 32, Djokovic is five years younger than Federer and one year junior to Nadal.
“It seems like I’m getting closer, but also they’re winning slams,” said Djokovic. “We’re kind of complementing each other. We’re making each other grow and evolve and still be in this game.
“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’m not really looking at age as a restriction of any kind for me, at least.
“It just depends how long I’m going to play…it depends not only on myself, it depends on circumstances in life.”
Djokovic hadn’t faced a top-20 player at Wimbledon this fortnight until Federer but ultimately handled the step up in quality to deprive the soon-to-be 38-year-old of a ninth title at Wimbledon to tie Martina Navratilova.
Federer last downed Djokovic at a grand slam in 2012 and fell in their two other final duels at Wimbledon.
Showing his class, Djokovic additionally hasn’t lost to Nadal at a grand slam — outside the Spaniard’s stronghold of Roland Garros — since 2013.
He may not be as popular as Federer and Nadal — not getting as much love from fans does irk Djokovic — but he is beating them regularly when it counts.
The first set certainly counted Sunday in slightly chilly, overcast conditions.
First set key
Djokovic held a 21-1 record against Federer when winning the opening set, the lone reverse coming in the Swiss’ second home of Dubai.
You could also call Wimbledon Federer’s home given all his success at SW19 but there was no comeback on this occasion.
Djokovic’s 3-1 lead in the first tiebreak evaporated, with Federer storming back for a 5-3 advantage.
He did virtually all of the dictating, often neutralizing Djokovic with a backhand slice before letting rip on both his forehand and backhand.
But two forehand errors made it 5-5 and Djokovic’s excellent approach shot forced a passing error for 6-5. A backhand wide sealed the set.
Instead of ripping through Federer, a sloppy Djokovic was broken to start the second after a slip on the grass.
The second set disappeared in 25 minutes, just what Federer wanted following the 58-minute opener — and playing three hours against Nadal in the semifinals.
A lethargic looking Djokovic somehow hung on in the third — barely — even in missing serves by yards and seeing his serve percentage drop.
With Djokovic serving at 4-5, 30-all, Federer produced a stunning drop volley to earn a set point, only for it to be erased thanks to a fine Djokovic serve.
Another tiebreak victory
Djokovic almost let slip a 5-1 edge in the ensuing tiebreak. Federer pulled to within 4-5 but could he have chosen a better shot on that pivotal point instead of a backhand drop shot early in the rally that went wide?
Djokovic quietly fist pumped in winning a 23-shot rally in the tiebreak though didn’t celebrate when the set ended. He knew it was a pro-Federer crowd.
“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,” said Djokovic.
So how did he do it?
“I like to trans-mutate it in a way. When the crowd is chanting ‘Roger’ I hear ‘Novak,'” he smiled. “It sounds silly, but it is like that. I try to convince myself that it’s like that.”
If you were expecting Djokovic to finally take control in the fourth, it didn’t happen, though he manufactured his first break chances and converted at 2-5.
Djokovic created the first break chances of the fifth at 2-1, only to see Federer withstand the pressure.
He broke through for 4-2 yet conceded serve straight away.
Djokovic dived like his former coach Boris Becker to help him hold for 6-5, with the Serb later asking chair umpire Damian Steiner when the tiebreak would arrive.
Djokovic dropped serve from 30-0 to trail 8-7 and looked out of it when Federer led 40-15. The fans were off their feet in anticipation.
But Djokovic forced a forehand miss then came up with that forehand pass to disappoint them.
“It was kind of a flashback of the US Open when I saved the two match points against him,” said Djokovic.
A Federer forehand into the net on break point led to groans.
On to the tiebreak it went after Djokovic saved two break points at 11-11 — when he led 40-0 — and he played a flawless final tiebreak to seal victory, the epic ending on a Federer forehand mishit that rocketed into the sky.