It is always dangerous to say something is “the greatest” because everyone has their own definition of what that means. But if you are a tennis fan, it’s extremely hard to argue that Sunday’s Wimbledon men’s final between Novak Djokovic and Roger Federer wasn’t the greatest Grand Slam match ever played.
It ebbed and flowed through five sets, two of our generation’s best players matching wits and strokes, leading the fans – and royals – at center court at the All England Club into an exhaustive five-hour swing of emotion.
Ultimately, the top-seeded Djokovic prevailed, defeating the eight-time Wimbledon champion 7-6 (5), 1-6, 7-6 (4), 4-6, 13-12 (3). Djokovic has never lost to Federer in three Wimbledon finals, but he had to fight off a pair of match points in the fifth-set tiebreaker to keep that record intact.
“Definitely tough to have those chances,” Federer said.
The fifth-set tiebreaker was the first in any men’s final at the four Grand Slams. It was just added this season, perhaps a reaction to previous marathons like the 26-24 fifth set between Kevin Anderson and John Isner in the 2018 semifinals.
At four hours, 57 minutes it was the longest Wimbledon final ever. It spanned 68 games and 422 points and featured 35 aces. The fifth set ran 2:02.
Djokovic, 32, became the first man since 1948 to save championship points in the final and win.
“I’m just obviously thrilled and overjoyed with emotions to be sitting here in front of you as a winner. It was one shot away from losing the match, as well,” said Djokovic. “This match had everything. It could have gone easily his way. He was serving extremely well, I thought, the entire match.
“Unfortunately in these kinds of matches, one of the players has to lose. … It was probably the most demanding match I was ever part of. Mentally, this was a different level. … One thing that I promised myself coming on to the court was that I need to stay calm and composed. I knew that the atmosphere will be as it was.”
The crowd heavily favored Federer, who at 37 was trying to become the oldest Grand Slam winner in the Open Era (since 1968). And you could tell that bothered Djokovic. When the match was over, he kneeled to the ground, picked a blade of grass from the court, put it into his mouth and chewed as if to say the win was very sweet.
“I like to transmutate it in a way: When the crowd is chanting ‘Roger,’ I hear ‘Novak,’ he said, smiling. “It sounds silly, but it is like that. I try to convince myself that it’s like that.”
Five years younger than Federer, and seemingly at the top of his game, its conceivable that Djokovic (16 Grand Slam titles) is easily within reach of Rafael Nadal (18) and Federer (20).
“It seems like I’m getting closer, but they’re also winning Slams,” Djokovic said. “We’re kind of complementing each other. We’re making each other grow and evolve and still be in this game. I think those two guys are probably one of the biggest reasons I still compete at this level. The fact that they made the 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.”
Truth is, Federer could have – should have – won this match. He held the title in his hands at 8-7 in the fifth set, up 40-15 with two match points. But Djokovic had other plans.
“I just feel like it’s such an incredible opportunity missed, I can’t believe it,” he said.
Djokovic holds a 21-10 record over Nadal in the past nine seasons. He blasted him in straight sets in January in the Australian Open final. He is also 20-9 against Federer over the same period of time. Djokovic beat him in the U.S. Open semifinals in 2010 and 2011 and the 2015 final. He has defeated Federer the last five times they’ve played in a Grand Slam.
His head-to-head record against Federer also includes three wins in the Wimbledon final, where Federer has claimed a record eight men’s titles. It also includes three wins at the United States Open, saving match points in the 2010 and 2011 semifinals and winning the 2015 final.
“Of course, if you have the majority of the crowd on your side, it helps, it gives you motivation, it gives you strength, it gives you energy,” Djokovic said. “When you don’t, then you have to find it within.”
Federer had 25 aces and finished with 94 winners and made 61 unforced errors. Djokovic had 54 winners and 52 unforced errors and didn’t break Federer’s serve until the fourth set.
According to the New York Times, the exhausted Djokovic offered thanks to Prince William and Kate Middleton, the Duchess of Cambridge after the match.
“Thank you very much for staying all the way to the end,” said Djokovic.