“When the crowd is chanting ‘Roger’ I hear ‘Novak’,” freshly-crowned Wimbledon champion Novak Djokovic said with a smile on Sunday.
A fairly implausible claim, perhaps, but the comment hinted at the phenomenal feats of mental strength and focus the Serb deployed in beating Roger Federer in the longest singles final in the tournament’s 133-year history.
“It sounds silly,” he conceded, “but it is like that. I try to convince myself that it’s like that. It’s similar ‘Roger’ and ‘Novak’,” he added laughing.
The absurdity of the claim was comical, but the lengths to which Djokovic had to battle the almost blanket support for his adored Swiss opponent was no joke.
The Serb had fought his great rival, and most of the 15,000-Centre Court crowd, for almost five hours before securing a 7-6)5) 1-6 7-6(4) 4-6 13-12(3) win for a fifth Wimbledon crown.
“It was probably the most demanding, mentally most demanding, match I was ever been part of,” the 32-year-old said.
“I mean, 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 would be as it was.”
Before the match, all the talk had been of records, statistics and places in history, but Sunday’s showpiece boiled down to something far more elementary – a battle of artistry versus industry.
Ultimately, Djokovic’s unyielding intensity and athleticism prevailed in the face of Federer’s beautiful, hypnotic, flowing strokes as the two preternaturally gifted men toyed with their own different forms of perfection on one of the world’s greatest sporting stages.
While Federer’s mercurial shot play brought constant gasps of admiration from the crowd, Djokovic’s super power, while less obvious, prevailed.
The top seed and defending champion was mentally rock solid. His concentration was absolute. His focus unwavering.
He never hit the ball with the same panache as the second-seeded 37-year-old Swiss, he never had the crowd shaking its head in disbelief, but he was a wall.
“I thought most of the match I was on the back foot actually. I was defending. He was dictating the play. I just tried to fight and find a way when it mattered the most, which is what happened,” said the world number one.
“I just told myself before the match, I’m going to try to switch off as much as I can from what is happening around us, and just be there, be present.
“I thought I could have played better. But at the same time one thing that probably allowed me to come back and save match points and win this match was the mental stability in those moments.
“You need to be constantly playing well throughout five hours if you want to win a match like this. I guess there is an endurance part. But I think there is always this self-belief. You have to keep reminding yourself that you’re there for a reason and that you are better than the other guy.”
Compared to Federer’s flashing strokes, the 32-year-old Serb’s obdurate defence is never likely to win a crowd over. But that is not to say there is not a form of brilliance in the Djokovic resilience.
It saw him claim a Bjorn Borg-equalling fifth Wimbledon crown, and allowed him to narrow the Grand Slam gap in the spread between the ‘big three’.
So ultimately, there was no escaping the statistics.
Djokovic now has 16 major singles titles, Federer has 20, with Spain’s Rafa Nadal — Federer’s semi-final victim — squeezed between them on 18.
“It seems like I’m getting closer,” Djokovic said. “But also they’re winning slams. We’re kind of complementing each other. We’re making each other grow and evolve and still be in this game.
“The fact that they made history… motivates me as well, inspires me to try to do what they have done, what they’ve achieved, and even more.
“Whether I’m going to be able to do it or not, I don’t know. I’m not just a tennis player, I’m a father and a husband. You have to balance things out.”
Federer does everything right but falls short on match points
How did Roger Federer end up losing the 2019 Wimbledon final?
It was a question that was being asked over and over again at the All England Club on Sunday after the crowd favourite did almost everything better than Novak Djokovic – except convert the two match points he earned deep into the fifth set.Those two misses at 6.21pm local time (1721 GMT) on Sunday are likely to haunt the Swiss great for many years to come and maybe even for the rest of his life.
When Federer was 8-7 40-15 up on his serve, he was a shot away from holding aloft the Challenge Cup for a record ninth time and claiming a record-extending 21st Grand Slam title.
Aged 37 and 340 days, he was a shot away from becoming the oldest man to win a major in the professional era.
The fact that the one single winner he needed so much never came on Sunday will hurt – and hurt badly.
Only 48 hours after Federer had said how tennis can “sometimes be brutal” as “there are no draws in our sport”, he felt the full brunt of those feelings when a forehand wide on his first match point followed by a cracking cross-court passing shot winner from Djokovic on the second killed off his dreams.
After the Serb had battled on for another 46 minutes to complete a heart-stopping 7-6(5) 1-6 7-6(4) 4-6 13-12(3) win in the longest singles final in Wimbledon history — with the clock finally stopping at four hours 57 minutes — the first words Federer uttered were: “I will try to forget (this final).
“I don’t know what I feel right now. I just feel like it’s such an incredible opportunity missed, I can’t believe it.”
Neither could the majority of the 15,000 crowd who created a raucous football stadium-like atmosphere on Centre Court.
Fans were so desperate to see Federer win a 21st major – and widen the gap with Rafael Nadal (18) and Djokovic (16) – that they started giving standing ovations to every error flying off the Serb’s racket as the match headed towards a crazy climax.
But for all the partisan cheers and roars, it was top seed and defending champion Djokovic who ended up crawling over the finishing line as he picked up his fifth Wimbledon title.
Federer, meanwhile, became the first man to lose a Wimbledon singles final after holding match points since 1948 when John Bromwich failed to convert three of them against Bob Falkenburg.
For a player who sets milestones almost every time he steps on a court, this is not one he will be in a rush to stick into his own personal scrapbook.
Federer is no stranger to coming off second best from being a point away from victory — he suffered the same fate against Kevin Anderson in last year’s Wimbledon quarter-finals and versus Djokovic in the 2011 U.S. Open semi-finals.
However, even the world number three will be wondering how he could have outclassed his great Serbian rival in almost every department and still not ended up with the trophy he called that “golden thing”.
The statistics suggested Federer should have won.
The second seed produced more winners (94-54), won more break points (7-3), had a higher first serve percentage (63-62), served more aces (25-10) and, most tellingly, won more points during the contest (218-204). But Federer did not win.
Three weeks shy of his 38th birthday, he will not want to get consumed by the “what ifs” that will no doubt play over and over in his mind.
No matter where Federer goes or what he does, even he will find it difficult to escape the question: Will he ever get a better chance to win that 21st major title?
The Swiss has now featured in the two longest men’s singles finals at Wimbledon.
Eleven years after he described his defeat by Nadal in the 2008 five-set twilight epic as “brutal”, Federer was again left wondering what went wrong.
“I know what I did well, how close I was. You try to forget, try to take the good things out of this match. There’s just tons of it,” said Federer.
“Similar to ’08 maybe. For now it hurts, and it should, like every loss does here at Wimbledon.
“Sure there’s similarities (with the defeat in 2008). I’m the loser both times, so that’s the only similarity I see.”