Before Sunday at Wimbledon, tennis fans had never understood what it felt like to snort cocaine and ride a motorcycle out of a helicopter. No Grand Slam final had ever been decided in a fifth-set tiebreaker, partly because of tradition (Wimbledon instituted tiebreakers at 12–12 in the final set just this year, perhaps out of fear that John Isner would die on the grass) and partly because of happenstance (the U.S. Open added a deciding tiebreaker in 1970, but the men’s final has never needed one). Additionally, no Grand Slam match of any kind had featured a 13–12 fifth set—a score line that feels more Bills–Texans in October than Centre Court in July. And yet, for all the novelty, anxiety, and ridiculousness of Novak Djokovic’s 7–6 (5), 1–6, 7–6 (4), 4–6, 13–12 (3) win over Roger Federer, the climax and the resolution of Sunday’s final both felt astoundingly familiar. Never has such an unprecedented sporting event felt so precedented.
If you watched the 2010 U.S. Open semifinal between Djokovic and Federer, you’d be excused for thinking you’d never see anything like it again. In the fifth set, Federer was just one swing away from clinching a spot in the final against Rafael Nadal, a matchup that fans in New York were desperate to see. Even as the crowd cheered his service errors, Djokovic saved two consecutive match points with two huge forehand winners—you can watch them at the 14:39 mark in the video below—then broke Federer’s serve and held on for a 7–5 victory in the fifth. “Today, I kind of closed my eyes on the forehands in the match points and just went for the shots,” Djokovic said, calling it “one of those matches that you will remember for the rest of your life.” Federer described his loss as “a bit of a disappointment.”
A year later, in 2011, Federer and Djokovic met again in the semifinals. Federer again had two match points, this time on his own serve. Before the first of them, the crowd screamed for 20 straight seconds—a TV announcer described it as “near hysteria”—while Djokovic repeatedly pursed his lips and nodded his head, looking like a submarine captain who’s untroubled by the fact that his vessel is filled nearly to the brim with ocean water. Djokovic then stopped nodding, crouched down low, and uncorked one of the greatest shots in the history of tennis, bludgeoning Federer’s first serve for a line-drive, cross-court, forehand winner that was barely visible to the naked eye. After he struck it, Djokovic sauntered to the ad side of the court with his arms raised in triumph, grinning impishly. (Watch the whole sequence by fast-forwarding to 3:31:15 in the video below.)
Djokovic won the next point on a Federer error, went on to win the game, and took the fifth set, 7–5. But back to that forehand winner. After the match, Federer called it a “lucky shot” and chided Djokovic for, well, closing his eyes and just going for it. “I never played that way,” Federer said. “How can you play a shot like that on match point?” Djokovic was unapologetic. “Yeah, I tend to do that on match points,” he said. “It kinda works.”
Three years earlier, Djokovic had been victimized by a Federer tweener at the U.S. Open—a shot that, given the court and the circumstances, is also one of the greatest in the sport’s history, and was received by the crowd at Arthur Ashe Stadium as a gift from a benevolent tennis god.
Djokovic’s forehand in 2011 was a gift that nobody asked for. The crowd in Ashe Stadium had been against him all match, as it always is when he plays Federer. Djokovic raised his arms, then, as both a plea and a declaration of intent. He was asking to be loved and demanding to be respected, and on that day and in the years since, he’s gone a solid 1 for 2. Djokovic has never been and will never be adored the way Federer and Nadal (but especially Federer) are adored. He was the third man butting his way into a two-man rivalry, and he’s always been more a foil than a hero (at least outside of Serbia). But in the biggest moments, on the sport’s biggest stages, Djokovic is almost always at his best. If he isn’t the greatest player of all time, he’s certainly the greatest at summoning greatness.
For 4 hours and 57 minutes on Sunday—the longest-ever men’s final at Wimbledon, nine minutes longer than Federer vs. Nadal in 2008—Federer was the better player by pretty much every metric. The 20-time Grand Slam champion had more aces, fewer double faults, and a better first-serve percentage; won more points on his first and second serves; won a higher percentage of net points; converted more break points; had more winners and a better ratio of winners to errors; and won both more games (36 vs. 32) and more points (218 vs. 204) than his opponent.*
But … also:
It must be said that a bunch of those 21 points came via generous in-kind donations from the Roger Federer Foundation. Federer was serving up 5–3 in the first-set tiebreaker when he played one of his worst four-point sequences of the match, making a forehand unforced error, another forehand unforced error, a forehand forced error, and a backhand unforced error that gave Djokovic the set. In the third-set tiebreaker, Federer’s backhand totally deserted him, as he made four unforced errors on that side.
Djokovic, though, deserves credit for playing clean tennis when Federer could not. And in the final tiebreaker, after a nervy fifth set in which each player had broken the other’s serve twice, it was Djokovic who was the aggressor. With the title in the balance, Djokovic forced Federer into mistakes and hit a pair of winners himself. On match point, Federer shanked a forehand, and Djokovic had his 16th Grand Slam title.
On the men’s side, Djokovic’s 16 Slam titles trail only Federer’s 20 and Nadal’s 18. It would’ve, could’ve, and perhaps should’ve been 21, 18, and 15, if only Federer had—say it with me now—converted one of the two match points he held deep in the fifth set.
Federer earned those match points with an ace down the T, a shot that inspired a good half-dozen fans to leap to their feet and block the camera directly behind the server. (And I thought English people had good manners.) The New York Times’ Kurt Streeter reported, “One man could be heard yelling 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!’ ” The TV broadcast spotlighted Federer’s wife Mirka, who had her head in her hands. I don’t know if, in that moment, she was thinking about the 2010 and 2011 U.S. Opens. Two points later, it was hard to think of anything else.
At 40–15, Federer spun in a second serve, then failed to move his feet quickly enough to respond to Djokovic’s forehand at his feet, leading him to spray his own forehand wide. At 40–30, Federer drilled a first serve but didn’t quite hit his spot down the T. Djokovic easily blocked it back, but left the ball short, just past the service line. It might’ve been over right then, if Federer had pinged a forehand into a corner. Instead, he found Djokovic’s forehand and rushed forward. Djokovic didn’t have to hit the shot of his life to win the point. But given the stakes, and Federer’s prowess at the net, he had to summon something pretty damn close to extraordinary. He did, because that’s what he does.
Djokovic won the next two points (which is a whole lot more difficult than that simple declarative statement implies), and after that his victory felt inevitable (though it wasn’t). “It was one shot away from losing the match,” Djokovic said afterwards. “In these kind of moments, I just try to never lose self-belief, just stay calm, just focus on trying to get the ball back.” Federer, for his part, called his loss “such an incredible opportunity missed.” It was the first time since 1948 that a man had held a match point in a Wimbledon final and lost.
In Federer’s post-match press conference, he fielded a question about whether Sunday’s victory would help make Djokovic more of a fan favorite. “You’ve got to go to the street and ask those people,” Federer said, before adding that “every win” helps Djokovic’s cause, “no doubt about it.” In reality, the exact opposite is true. As Lauren Collins put it in a 2013 New Yorker profile, “the paradox of Djokovic’s career is that the better he does the less he is liked, at least among those who cling to the binary model perpetuated by Federer and Nadal. By a fault of timing, he is the forever crasher, the automatic odd man out.”
On Centre Court on Sunday, Djokovic seemed comfortable with his stature in the game, and with himself. He didn’t need to swing wildly to save those match points, and when he did save them he didn’t preen or hold his hand to his ear. His best was more than good enough, whether or not the fans appreciated what he’d done. “When the crowd is chanting ‘Roger,’ I hear ‘Novak,’ ” he said after the match. While that line drew laughs in the press room, he wasn’t joking. “It sounds silly, but it is like that,” Djokovic said. “I try to convince myself that it’s like that.”
For as long as Federer is still playing, that’s how tennis is going to be. Novak Djokovic won’t ever be the crowd favorite, but he should always be favored.
Correction, July 15, 2019: This piece originally misstated the number of games Novak Djokovic won in the Wimbledon final. It was 32, not 29.