By Kurt Streeter
Yes, Novak Djokovic stared down the deepest of holes in a championship match for the ages on Centre Court on Sunday, coming back after Roger Federer held two match points while serving for the title.
And, yes, Djokovic did indeed emerge victorious, 7-6 (5), 1-6, 7-6 (4), 4-6, 13-12 (3), in the longest Wimbledon singles final, and the first to end in a fifth-set tiebreaker with the score tied at 12-12.
But amid all the marveling about the tense moments and the miraculous shots, it shouldn’t be overlooked that the vast majority of Centre Court fans frothed for Federer from the first ball to the last. Crowds always respond to him with that kind of backing, but the nearly existential fervor is only growing as he continues to challenge for major titles at 37.
“Let’s go Roger!” and “C’mon, Roger, you can do it, Roger!” echoed so loudly and with such strident urgency that it is probably still ringing through the Wimbledon air.
When Federer at long last pushed the match to the brink, gaining a match point as he served at 8-7 in the fifth set, the crowd seemed ready to shake Centre Court to its studs.
But Djokovic simply would not back down. It was a mental feat as much as a physical one.
This match showed vividly what separates Djokovic from the pack. Once again he proved that, when it comes to guts and gumption, when it comes to pure ability to handle crunchtime, he is as unwavering as any player in tennis history.
“It was probably the most demanding match I was ever part of,” he said. “Mentally, this was a different level.”
Djokovic noted that he had come prepared. He’d visualized maintaining a state of inner steadiness, prepped himself to face the pro-Federer frenzy.
“One thing that I promised myself coming on to the court today,” he said, “was that I need to stay calm and composed. I knew that the atmosphere will be as it was.”
You could sense what Djokovic would face two hours before the final, when fans lined up underneath an overhead walkway that leads from a players’ lounge to Centre Court, hoping to catch even a glimpse of tennis royalty.
“He just walked past us, he did,” one man in the crowd said. “Roger!”
Never mind that actual royalty, the Duke and Duchess of Cambridge, were in attendance Sunday.
When the championship match began, it was beautiful to watch. The aggressive Federer and the counterpunching, never-give-an-inch Djokovic were reminiscent of Ali against Frazier. There were drop volleys that spun low at seemingly impossible angles. There were screaming groundstrokes that touched the lines.
There was Djokovic, still standing after being bludgeoned, particularly in a 6-1 second-set loss in which he looked out of sorts.
Djokovic had a smattering of supporters. His family, coaches and friends sat in a small corner of the court. A woman sat at another corner, with a printout of the flag of Serbia, Djokovic’s homeland, in her hand. She rose with it on occasion after he won points, chanting his name.
Since the start of the 2011 season, Djokovic has been the dominant force in men’s tennis, even in the context of the Big Three.
He holds a 21-10 record over Nadal in the past nine seasons. When last they played in a Grand Slam final, at the Australian Open in January, Djokovic painted a masterpiece, winning, 6-3, 6-2, 6-3, in a little more than two hours.
His record against Federer in that stretch 20-9.
Still, the records don’t count when it comes to public sentiment. Nadal and Federer are beloved. Djokovic, before this match and even after it, is simply respected.
His head-to-head record against Federer now includes three wins in the Wimbledon final, where Federer has claimed a record eight men’s titles. It also include three memorable wins at the U.S. Open, saving match points in the 2010 and 2011 semifinals and winning the 2015 final.
Unlike the atmosphere at that final in New York, where the fevered, pro-Federer audience verged on boorish, the crowd at Wimbledon did not seethe with nastiness.
The spectators were polite to him, granting him applause throughout, though it was often muted, restrained and grudging. When he made an error, there was applause. When Federer made an error, there were groans.
“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.”
In the final set, Federer seemed weary. But with the crowd urging him on, he edged ahead, breaking Djokovic with a crosscourt forehand pass.
History was about to be made. Another title was about to be won for by Federer, his ninth at Wimbledon, which would have tied Martina Navratilova’s record.
The crowd went apoplectic. One man could be heard muttering to no one in particular, and to everyone: “Oh my God, my God, we are going to see him win. Roger is going to win.”
There it was again. Bedlam in the stands. And the chants: “Roger! Roger! Roger!”
After the match, Djokovic revealed some of the secrets behind his will to win.
He said he had a mental trick.
“When the crowd is chanting ‘Roger,’ I hear ‘Novak,’” he said, before flashing a smile. “It sounds silly, but it is like that. I try to convince myself that it’s like that.”
Federer went up 40-15 and had his two match points. On the second, he pressed forward. Djokovic took two solid strides to his right and rocketed a dipping forehand pass for a winner. Two points later, he evened the match.
They played eight more games and then a winner-take-all tiebreaker. Djokovic won when Federer shanked a forehand that fell well out.
Oftentimes when he wins a big match, Djokovic makes a display of thanking the crowd by turning to each side of the court and blowing kisses and making gestures that show his love.
On Sunday, when the end finally came, he stood in the center of the court, looking out at the crowd, stoic and satisfied. It was clear he had beaten two opponents.