At some point in the fifth set last night, I’m going to wager about the same time I poured my sixth gin (I had promised myself I’d stick to a glass every set, 12-12 in the fifth counts as two) I knew Djokovic was going to win. Maybe it’s been me watching ten years of these three (Federer, Nadal and Djokovic) maul it out over the past decade, maybe after you follow a sport for a decade, you eventually learn to read a momentum shift in the game, maybe it was just my gut instinct screaming that a Federer win at thirty-seven was too good to be true. Maybe, and this is the most crucial maybe – Novak Djokovic’s biggest strength on court has nothing to do with holding a racket.
How the fuck did Djokovic win? How did he beat the greatest player of all time from a point where Federer was a stroke away from lifting the Wimbledon trophy? How has he managed to do this not once, but in three different matches on two of the biggest stages tennis has to offer? At this point I can only brood about what could have been. Somewhere, I don’t think Federer’s feeling any different. I’ve been left with a haunting image of him staring at the perfectly manicured blades of grass that make the Centre Court turf in shocked disbelief while Novak nibbled on the court like he had planned it all along. The match has been a masterclass for future athletes in how success at the highest level goes way beyond technique, strategy, effort and a lifetime of hard work. Because Djokovic, for all practical purposes yesterday was the lesser of the two athletes for most of the match.
Federer’s play is genius. There’s no other word for it. I honestly hate using that word, it’s such a fill in the blank nowadays for anything remotely above average. In his case though, it’s accurate. You can’t teach kids to play like him. I’m bored at this point trying to find new ways to remind people how extraordinary he is. I feel everyone knows. Liquid whip forehand, touch at the net matched by absolutely no one in the game, a service motion that kids all over the world have spent several hours of their lives trying to imitate to perfection (poor things), I mean this is a futile exercise. Critics, writers, peers, fans have all written him off at several points in the last decade and yet he’s sat in arrogant defiance in the top three of the rankings for most of the ten years, even managing to reclaim his beloved number one spot for a small part of last year. He’s had a renaissance over the past two years and has found himself a new hobby; ticking off some of the most talented players from the next gen like they’re flies waiting to be swatted away. It’s just embarrassing to hear reporters ask him about retirement, but I don’t blame them. I’d like to know when he plans to hang the racket on the wall only so that I can clear more of my life plans to accommodate watching him play live.
The Federer Nadal semi-final was potentially this years biggest tennis ticket. Given the gap between their last encounter at SW19, everyone treats these two meeting in any slam with the hanging assumption that it’s going to be their last. Nadal’s a way better competitor on grass against Federer than Federer is on clay against Nadal. By the sheer nature of their playing style, Federer has a slight upper hand on the lawn. Nadal has changed as a player over the past eleven years. He doesn’t run behind every ball like his life depends on it anymore. He keeps the points short, playing smarter than ever before. That’s not to say that his sledgehammer swinging forehand and signature reach is a part of the past. He can still do everything he could as a teenager on court, he just chooses exactly when to transform into his nineteen year old self sparingly now. The semi lived up to hype, Nadal saving four match points in a signature display of Fedal high octane drama before Federer managed to close out a fifth.
The difference between playing Nadal and Djokovic is very simple. Nadal fights pressure better than anyone else around. Djokovic internalizes it. It’s his biggest strength, and in my opinion the strongest part of his game. While Federer vs Nadal is a clash of opposites in terms of style (righty vs lefty, etc), Federer vs Djokovic is a literal clash of opposites in terms of the best strokes the game has on sale at the moment. Federer’s forehand and Djokovic’s backhand are the two best groundstrokes (in my opinion – ever) in tennis right now. Federer’s service as a package, keeping into account the accuracy, speed and spin is waaaay more effective than players who serve faster than him on an average, which clashes with Djokovic’s return – undoubtedly the best of all time (Yes, better than Agassi too). Federer’s brutally aggressive grass court game is checked and checked by Djokovic’s brick wall defense from the baseline.
Tennis is a cruel game in the sense that the outcome of matches is more dependant on which points you win rather than how many. Federer won more points than Djokovic did last night. In fact he served better, hit more winners, converted more breakpoints, did better at the net and yet – Djokovic scraped the win. On paper it seemed like there was hardly any difference between them. In fact, the match played out true to their styles of play. In set one and three, Djokovic displayed why he’s a perfect player on paper. He held serve, defended magnificently and edged the set in the tiebreak. In set two and four, Federer managed to break the Djokovic defence multiple times like a freak force of nature. These are times when and I quote Nadal’s autobiography – ‘You can’t play against Roger at his best. You have to keep telling yourself that this will wear out and his level will go down at some point. At these times, he’s unplayable.’
Federer broke in the fifth set and was serving for the match at 40-15. The entirely of centre court wanted him to win. I had already kept a tweet composed – Some drivel about greatness is a concept that keeps getting — you get the gist.
Now Djokovic turns into the best version of himself.
I’m already in tears at match point. I can’t handle my nerves. I have two friends with me, one of who has passed out and the other is absolutely going to judge the living shit out of me because I’ve wet myself even before the match has ended. The mental strength it must take to swing through Federer’s shots at championship point with absolutely no fucks left to give and yet hit a clean winner is alien to me. It’s like how I felt when I sat through my first class of differential equations in the eleventh. I-can’t-fathom-it. This is what seals Djokovic as a player without any weaknesses. To beat him, you not only have to display a near perfect game but also realise that he’s capable of re-climbing the mountain you’ve trudged up once any amount of times to get the job done. Djokovic was raised in Belgrade when Serbia was being bombed by NATO. His formative years playing tennis were shaped by blasts late in the night. He learned to hit the ball and simultaneously look out for his life. It’s no wonder he plays when he’s down better than anyone else in the world.
The life lesson I’m left with after the match is that for victory, genius is overrated. It can be fought. It can be beaten. Djokovic winning was no fluke. Those two championship points had nothing to do with luck. Billie Jean King had famously quoted ‘Pressure in tennis is a privilege’. Novak’s done something I thought was previously impossible in sport. He’s befriended it. By the end of the match Federer’s genius was crippled by Djokovic’s sheer display of guts. Despite being defending champion; he played in the most important points like he had nothing to lose. And won.