Djokovic has redefined resilience, even a brutal Federer display was not enough
Novak Djokovic has never quite been embraced like Roger Federer and Rafa Nadal. But his main virtue is easy to see, writes Tumaini Carayol.
For most of Saturday’s bizarre, mesmerising Wimbledon final between Roger Federer and Novak Djokovic, the Swiss was the better player and it wasn’t even close.
One month shy of his 38th birthday, Federer arrived at the final of Wimbledon and played a beautiful match. He served brilliantly, he moved swiftly around the court and he constantly arrested time from the Serb by taking his forehand early and sweeping to the net. The matchup between Federer and Djokovic so often rests on the Serb’s vast superiority on return – he is perhaps the best returner of all time – yet it was Federer who laid siege to Djokovic’s serve and left him with no escape for most of the final.
Going by statistics only, it was a brutal display from the Swiss. Federer served more aces, he hit fewer double faults, he served with a higher first serve percentage, he won a greater percentage of points behind both his first serves, second serves and net points, he converted far more break points, he dominated on return, he hit 94 winners to Djokovic's 54, his aggression somehow yielded only 10 more errors, he won 218 points to the Serb's 204 and he even ran 200 metres further.
Yet, the match finished with Djokovic capturing his 16th slam title and 5th Wimbledon after a 7-6 1-6 7-6(4) 4-6 13-12(3) victory.
Federer lost because he couldn’t take his opportunities across the net from a player who has redefined resilience in this sport, who trailed in just about every statistic possible yet still calmly kept himself ahead for most of the match. Djokovic edged out the first set on a tiebreak, so Federer had to battle back in the second.
When Djokovic also took the third set tiebreak to lead two sets to one, Federer levelled the match with his back to the wall. Djokovic made the first move in the final set, forcing Federer to peg back his 4-2 lead. It was a reminder that tennis is about winning the right points, not the most points.
Novak Djokovic (SER) speaks with Roger Federer (SUI)Getty Images
The important points are what decide a tennis match and no player in history seems to have such a deep understanding of this in the heat of battle like Djokovic, who has an incredible ability to win at his worst, even when he logically shouldn’t be close.
Against Federer, their story goes back to the 2010 and 2011 US Open when Djokovic engineered two successive fifth-set escapes, saving four match points across the two matches. After Djokovic’s 2011 win, in which he saved match point with a screeching forehand return winner, an iconic shot that signified the Serb’s arrival, Federer was incredulous in defeat. He likened it to a junior carelessly slapping the ball when they are convinced they have no chance.
TENNIS Novak Djokovic and Rafael Nadal after the US Open final 2011Reuters
Time has been kind to that shot as Djokovic has consistently demonstrated his ability to recover from the brink of defeat. This time, even as he struggled with his game and his forehand throughout the match, the closer he came to defeat, the more he transformed. In the three tiebreaks Federer and Djokovic played on Sunday, Djokovic hit zero unforced errors compared to the eleven rifled by Federer.
When he stared down two match points on Federer’s serve, Djokovic came up with a viciously deep second serve return that forced an error, followed by a wicked forehand angled passing shot winner. The deeper the match went into the fifth set, the more he looked like himself. He put his mental resilience down to the mental work he does and his ‘visualisation’ techniques - mentally running through all the scenarios in a match and preparing for how he will fight them. “I always try to imagine myself as a winner. I think there is a power to that,” he said, smiling.
Though it finished on such a dramatic high note, Wimbledon 2019 was a bizarre tournament. Until the final two rounds, the men’s singles event was irrelevant and the focus was elsewhere. As the top three seeds rolled through the draw, the players of interest billed as the next group of players to trouble Djokovic, Nadal and Federer all crumbled in the early rounds, most notably the miserable first round losses of Stefanos Tsitsipas, Alexander Zverev and Dominic Thiem. Djokovic, Rafa Nadal and Federer are all well into their 30s yet they are perhaps enjoying the worst competition from the rest of the field that they have ever faced.
Federer’s dominant win over Nadal in their semi-final was a moment and their first meeting at Wimbledon since 2008 elicited nostalgic memories of that classic final, but for many, the outpouring of love for both players was a reminder of the love that Djokovic still doesn’t receive.
The past eight years of men’s tennis have seen these constant discussions about how Djokovic is not embraced like they are and about how harder he is to characterize than Federer and Nadal, who have respectively become synonymous with skill and valour. On Sunday afternoon, Djokovic became the first man to win a Wimbledon singles final from match point down since 1948, in a manner that has become typical of him.
Djokovic’s greatest virtue should be easy to identify by now - he is the most clutch male player the sport has seen.