They made 2019 (VII): Djokovic pulls off Houdini act in Wimbledon classic

 - Reem Abulleil

EPISODE 7/10. In 10 days, 10 players and 10 stories, here are the tales of a fascinating year

Novak Djokovic and Roger Federer changing ends after the trophy ceremony at Wimbledon 2019©Corinne Dubreuil/FFT

EPISODE 7/10. From the brink of defeat, here’s how Novak Djokovic overcame Roger Federer in a historic Wimbledon final.

Moments after Novak Djokovic completed a fifth-set tiebreak victory over Roger Federer in the Wimbledon final last July, Sue Barker pointed towards the Serb’s box and referenced his “suffering” parents, who had to endure the four-hour 57-minute thriller before their son gave them a reprieve and secured the title.

Novak Djokovic pointing at his box at the end of the Wimbledon 2019 final©Corinne Dubreuil/FFT

“Everybody was suffering, I think,” Djokovic told Barker on court, his facial expression – somewhere between relief and disbelief – aptly conveying just how stressful that final was.

He’s not wrong. The tension was palpable throughout the five-hour tug of war that saw Djokovic save two match points late in the fifth set on his way to a 7-6(5), 1-6, 7-6(4) 4-6, 13-12(3) triumph.

The clash will go down in history as the first Wimbledon singles final to be decided by the newly-introduced fifth-set tiebreak at 12-12, but it will be remembered for far more than that.

Novak Djokovic walking next to Roger Federer both holding their trophies Wimbledon 2019©Corinne Dubreuil/FFT

One for the history books

In what was a 48th career meeting between Djokovic and Federer – and their 16th showdown at a Grand Slam – statistics, momentum and all logical metrics went out the window as Serbia’s leading man proved once again that he is a mental beast.

Peak Federer came to play that July summer day in south-west London. The Swiss eight-time Wimbledon champion was untouchable on serve for the first three sets, yet somehow found himself trailing Djokovic two-sets-to-one.

It took Djokovic two hours and 47 minutes to create a first break point on the Federer serve. Federer survived a 35-shot rally to save it. It was that kind of match!

As the pressure mounted in the fifth set, a concerned-looking Djokovic looked up to the umpire asking him about the new tiebreak rule. “10-10 is the tiebreak?” He corrected him and said it was to be played at 12-12.

By the end of the final, the then 37-year-old Federer had won 14 more points than his opponent, fired 15 more aces and 40 more winners. He broke Djokovic’s serve seven times, conceding just three breaks himself, and served for the match at 8-7 in the decider, even going up 40-15.

Djokovic still won the match.

Novak Djokovic presenting the Wimbledon 2019 trophy to the crowd©Corinne Dubreuil/FFT

“Crazy Final“

“Novak congratulations man; that was crazy!” said Federer on court.

Djokovic agreed.

“I think it was, if not the most thrilling and exciting finals I was ever a part of, then definitely it’s top two or three in my career against one of the greatest players of all time – Roger who I respect a lot,” said the five-time Wimbledon champion.

“Unfortunately in these kind of matches, one of the players has to lose, we both had our chances. It’s quite unreal to be honest to be two match points down and to come back.

“Roger said that he hopes that he gives some other people the chance to believe that they can do it at 37, I’m one of them. He inspires me for sure.”

Djokovic stopped Federer from equalling Martina Navratilova’s mark of nine Wimbledon singles trophies won, and he had to battle through the longest men’s final on record in tournament history to pull it off.

Novak Djokovic going for a dropshot during the Wimbledon 2019 final©Corinne Dubreuil/FFT

Mentally demanding

The then world No.1 probably knew that Federer’s level was a notch higher than his throughout most of the match, but he also knew it didn’t matter. He stepped up in the three tiebreaks and walked away with a 16th Grand Slam crown.

“That was one thing that I promised myself coming on to the court today, that I need to stay calm and composed, because I knew that the atmosphere will be as it was,” said Djokovic, who faced a sell-out Centre Court crowd that was heavily in Federer’s favour.

After winning the last point of the match, his celebration was contained, as he looked towards the spectators, almost taunting them – his small grin showcasing how proud of himself he was to prove them all wrong.

“When the crowd is chanting 'Roger' I hear 'Novak',” Djokovic told reporters with a smile.

“It sounds silly, but it is like that. I try to convince myself that it's like that.

“It was probably the most demanding, mentally most demanding, match I was ever part of. I had the most physically demanding match against [Rafael] Nadal in the finals of Australia that went almost six hours [in 2012]. But mentally this was different level, because of everything.”

Djokovic would go on to add two more titles in 2019 – the Masters 1000 tournament in Paris (Rolex Paris Masters) and the ATP 500 event in Tokyo – to end the season with five in total. He ended the year at No.2 in the rankings behind Nadal, and one spot ahead of Federer, who is still leading the race for most Grand Slams won with his men’s all-time record haul of 20.

The Swiss was in a state of shock when he addressed the press after the Wimbledon final, unable to grasp how he walked off Centre Court with the smaller trophy.

“I just feel like it's such an incredible opportunity missed, I can't believe it,” said Federer.

He later added: “I'm very strong at being able to move on because I don't want to be depressed about actually an amazing tennis match.”

That it certainly was!

A sad Roger Federer sitting during the trophy presentation at Wimbledon 2019©Corinne Dubreuil/FFT

The rematch

There was some solace for Federer at the end of the season when he faced off once again with Djokovic in London, this time at the O2 Arena for a round-robin match at the ATP Finals. It was a do-or-die bout for both, with the winner securing passage to the semi-finals. Federer ended a four-match losing streak to Djokovic by claiming his first win over the Serb since 2015.

When asked if he was happy to banish those “Wimbledon ghosts” that may have haunted him since July, Federer quickly set the record straight.

“Well, they were never really there. I also didn't know I hadn't beaten him in a few years, actually. Didn't feel that way because it was so close in Paris [Bercy in 2018] and in Wimbledon against him,” Federer said in London.

“I'm just happy at the level I could play today, and obviously it's always special beating Novak, even more so of what happened, but I didn't feel like I had to get rid of the ghosts or anything like that. I feel like I moved on pretty quickly after that. I have been playing very well this season, and I think this victory proves that today.”

As the Federer-Djokovic rivalry lives on, their next duel – which will be their 50th against one another – can’t come soon enough!