Sport is supposed to be simple. Score more points or runs or goals than your opponent and win. The player who has the better numbers takes home the trophy. The one who performs better for majority of a match is victorious.
But there is so much more to it than the coldblooded figures on the scoreboard. There is an element of intangible, the things you cannot see when you see the score. Luck, grit, focus and then the greatest weapon of them all, more vital than any piece of equipment: mentality.
On Sunday, in the greatest Grand Slam final of all times at Wimbledon, defending champion Novak Djokovic beat second seed Roger Federer 7-6 (5), 1-6, 7-6 (4), 4-6, 13-12 (3) in five hours. Greatest, of course, is an absolute, and is therefore subjective. But a final between a 37-year-old eight-time champion and 32-year-old four-time champion that lasted five hours and needed tennis’ version of a penalty shootout to decide the winner really should have little competition.
The previous contender was 2008, when a 22-year-old Rafael Nadal beat the then world No 1 Federer. In both cases 11 years apart, the same man took the runners up plate. At 26, Federer was outplayed in another five-set duel. A month short of 38, Federer played one of the best matches of his career against the best player in the world.
The match had everything, practically everything that makes tennis such a battle. It lasted for five sets and five hours, it had no clear winner until the very end. It had unbelievable shots, the agony and ecstasy of fine margins of the white lines, the immense pressure to push the ball into a part of the court not covered without sending it overboard. It even had longest rally in a Wimbledon men’s singles final ever.
It also showcased the one defining ability of two of the greatest to play the sport: Djokovic with his incredulous returning from all over the court, Federer with his impeccable serving; the Serbian’s wall on the baseline, the Swiss player’s angles on grass.
It even had the final set tiebreak being used for the first time in a singles match, in the very first year it was introduced after the six-and-half-hour semi-final last year.
Most of all, it had that emotional roller coaster than makes sport worth it, despite triumph or disaster.
For large chunks of the match, the older man was the far better player on court. In fact, the 16-time Major title winner played what is probably his worst final. But in a testament to Djokovic’s willpower, he won.
Federer had more points than Djokovic (218 to 204), hit more winners (94 to 54) and aces (25 to 10), and had more break-points (13 to 8) and more breaks of serve (seven to three). He even had TWO championship points on SERVE.
But Djokovic had what mattered most: resilience on big points. The world No 1 showed the mentality that makes him a champion, the focus that enabled him to break the hegemony of Fedal (Federer and Rafael Nadal) in 2011, the fire that helped him fight even when the crowd is against him; fight from the brink of defeat to force victory.
There were three tiebreaks in the match, he won all three of them by simply not giving up on the ball. He could not even get a look-in at Federer’s serve for the first three sets, so he practically pushed the ball to do the work for him. He was not commanding at the net, so he willed his deep groundstrokes to get the points.
Every time Federer raced ahead, Djokovic caught up with him. Every time he surrendered an edge, he clawed back up. In a battle of skills and thrills, it was Djokovic’s will that triumphed.
A nail-biting finale
The finale was such a topsy-turvy match, no suspense author could have written a better script.
In the first set, there were no breaks of serve even though Federer had one chance. (That break point conversion is getting more serious after all the social media jokes.) The second seed was 5-3 in the tiebreak but lost four straight points, three of them on unforced errors in a sign of what was to come in the match.
After the high of that first set win, though, the top seed seemed to lose his focus completely and was soon served a breadstick by an ultra aggressive Federer. You could see why this man had 20 Grand Slam titles in the way he broke his younger opponent three times.
But after a brief break, Djokovic regrouped gradually, almost visibly, in the third set and didn’t break or get broken, despite the one chance, to force a tiebreak. Once again, an error-strewn game from the Swiss punished him in the shoot-out. Foreshadowing, really.
Federer recovered quickly and despite losing his serve for the first time, he grabbed the fourth set looking fresh as ever.
In the decider, he seemed the more enterprising, more attacking player of the two. He was broken early and broke right back to gain momentum. His sizzling wide aces and deep ground strokes betrayed no signs of age or exhaustion. In fact, Djokovic was the one grunting with effort in the longer rallies.
He broke Djokovic with a solid return game at 7-7, and hit two aces to get the two coveted championship points at 8-7. Federer was one point away from history and in a span of seconds that will haunt him for a long time, he messed up two forehands. But Djokovic didn’t miss his and the match was back on serve.
Despite failing from one shot away from a ninth Wimbledon and 21st Grand Slam, Federer didn’t get bogged down. He fought admirably and raised his level to stay in the match serving from behind for six games.
But as fate would have it, John Isner and Kevin Anderson had changed history as well. At 12-12, it was time for a decisive tiebreak, the 37-year-old’s hamartia in the final. He fought from 1-4 down but could get just two more points as Djokovic blazed winners and defended his title.
For the third time in a Wimbledon final, Djokovic had battled the crowd and Federer to win. In a more telling statistic, for the third time in a Grand Slam, Djokovic fought back from double match point down to beat Federer (after 2010 and 2011 US Open semi-finals).
After the marathon was over, both players praised each other and looked emotionally spent. Looking numb, Federer said he will take this loss on the chin as well, as he always has, and that he didn’t play tennis for records.
But it is what Djokovic said about his “most mentally demanding match” that sums up how he managed to win. “When the crowd is chanting ‘Roger’ I hear ‘Novak,’ he said. “It sounds silly, but it is like that. I try to convince myself that it’s like that.”
Federer played his heart out, but Djokovic won the match in his head.