Novak Djokovic flirted with death, but he edged out a thriller against Roger Federer in just shy of five hours in the Wimbledon final to claim his fifth crown at SW19 and his 16th career major, 7-6(5), 1-6, 7-6(4), 4-6, 13-12(3).
It was fitting that the first deciding set tie-break in the singles event was reserved for the grand finale, both players unable to be separated from each other after four hours of ebbs and flows. Despite Federer’s glittering history at Wimbledon, this defeat may rank as the most heartbreaking of his career.
Two championship points were manufactured by the Swiss in the 16th game of the fifth set, Djokovic looking uncharacteristically wearisome and by all intents and purposes a defeated man. But the Serbian hasn’t single-handedly uprooted the game’s two finest players, Federer and Nadal, by surrendering meekly. He would summon an immediate break back to keep his hopes of lifting a fifth Wimbledon crown alive.
“I think it was the most thrilling final I’ve ever been a part of,” Djokovic noted courtside, his fingers wrapped around the Wimbledon trophy for the second consecutive year. “It was against one of the greatest players of all time, Roger, who I respect a lot. Unfortunately in one of these kind of matches, one player has to lose.”
Decided on the finest of margins
Not since 1948 has a male player lost in the final at Wimbledon having held championship points, although if there was ever a contest where such a record would be broken, it was this one, played out amid a backdrop of sharp momentum shifts and missed opportunities.
Djokovic has appeared in six Wimbledon finals since the turn of the decade, but not since his 2013 final loss to Andy Murray has he contrived to look so average. Three hours of tennis had elapsed until the Serbian, widely considered the greatest returner of all time, manufactured a break point on the Federer serve. And yet at the halfway mark in the contest, he was in poll position, 2-1 to the good.
Federer, surprisingly calm post-match, told the crowd: “It was a great match. I had my chances. I thought we played some great tennis so in a way I’m actually really happy. This is going to take some time to recover, physically too.”
The Swiss had started the brighter player, fashioning a break point in only the fourth game of the match, and it was a mixture of tentativeness from the 37-year-old and Djokovic digging deep that saw the opening set amble towards a tie-break. There, Federer seized the crucial mini-break, but three inexplicable forehand errors donated the Serbian a priceless first set advantage.
Federer had only once defeated Djokovic from a set down in their illustrious head-to-head – in Dubai in 2014 – but he was gifted a route back into the match when the Serbian’s concentration dipped immensely. In a roles reversal from Friday’s semi-final clash with Nadal, Federer grabbed the second set for the loss of only a single game.
That was when the Swiss began rueing his chances, squandering a set point in the tenth game of the second set. Djokovic, stern-faced throughout much of the contest as if bewildered by his performance, gave an unforgiving look towards his coaching box as he forced another tie-break.
He was, again, the more composed player in the seven-point shootout, claiming it for the loss four points. Five sets would be required if Federer was going to complete the turnaround.
And a deciding set was forced, just as it was in 2015, with Djokovic afforded the small comfort of finally making inroads in a Federer service game. The fifth set trundled on, with the Serbian staring down the barrel with the Swiss boasting two championship points. What followed was the greatest Houdini act in Wimbledon history.