Federer, Djokovic have met their match
Wimbledon finalists enter latest meeting as near-perfect equals
london — Novak Djokovic and Roger Federer are separated by no morethan the width of the piece of paper on which their match results are written coming into their Wimbledon men’s final Sunday. They are split dead evenly in a dozen previous Grand Slam matches. Federer is the only man to have beaten Djokovic in all four of the major championships, while Djokovic is the only man to have done so to Federer. It’s the smallness of that difference that makes it such a giant occasion. “Big,” Federer calls it. It’s a match loaded with large meaning: Federer will be attempting to win an unprecedented
eighth Wimbledon title, and the attempt undoubtedly will be accompanied by huge emotion. Last year’s five-set Wimbledon final, won by Djokovic 6-4 in the fifth, ended with both men on the verge of weeping. Federer stood stock-still with a tear rolling down his check, while Djokovic covered his face with his hands, trying to savor a victory that “just really fulfilled every segment of my being and ofmy life.”
Their transcendent rivalry has played out over nearly 10 years with shifting swings in dominance that work out to near neutrality on the question of who is better: This will be their 40th meeting overall since 2006, with Federer holding a bare 20-19 lead. Trying to sort out who is the superior player becomes more a matter of stylistic preference than real substance, unless it’s a matter of age. If Federer has an edge, it’s perhaps only because he’s five years older, nearing 34, while Djokovic is just 28.
If a serve like a silk-clad billy club and the footwork of a softshoe dancer is your preference, then Federer is your favorite to win. He has lost his serve just once in the entire two weeks, delivering the ball at around 120 mph. But add to that his superb footwork and a handsy ability to pluck shots out of the dirt, and he has put on a display of responsive, fluid grass-court tennis that no one has come close to.
“We all know how good he is,” Djokovic said. “He’s the greatest ever. There’s not enough praises for what he does.”
Yet Federer has not won a Grand Slam title in three years, thanks largely to Djokovic, and has had to put up with background murmuring that he was past his prime and not capable of challenging the younger man’s top-ranked dominance. Federer dealt with the skepticism with outward equanimity, but apparently it hurt him more than he showed. After winning his semifinal over Andy Murray, he said: “There is also the negative side to it where you just feel like it’s beating down on you: ‘It’s very bad. Your forehand’s terrible. Why are you still playing?’ You’re just like, well, it doesn’t matter what they think, really.”
Federer used it all as competitive fuel. Perhaps hitting the ball more purely than ever, he made his critics seem absurd by dropping just a single set en route to the final. “I always knew the reason why I was playing,” Federer said in a show of suppressed irritation. “I don’t need to explain a whole lot to you guys. I think the fans know why I’m playing.”
Compared to Federer, Djokovic can appear to be more of a physical grinder, but it’s the difference between a dancer and gymnast. He plays from a crouch with the balance and flexibility to hit out from any awkward position, whether driving the ball or spinning it, and he’s simply the greatest returner in the game, with a pouncing quality as he takes the ball early and turns the pace back on his adversary.
Asked whatmakes Djokovic so difficult to beat, semifinal opponent Richard Gasquet said: “His return. His return. That’s the best because he never miss. Never miss a return. You all the time serve, you serve. The ball is always on your side again.”
It’s no use trying to figure out which player is the more mentally strong either. Federer plays from a place of almost preternatural calm, a perennial crowd favorite for his implacable grace. Djokovic is the stormier creature, with occasional fits of self-fury. But it would be a mistake to call that a vulnerability. He has radiated a sense of deep emotional stability here, a familiar and accessible sight in the village as he cruised around Wimbledon Common on his bicycle or walked in the park with his wife and baby. He has preserved the No. 1 ranking for 53 consecutive weeks for a reason. “You are the hunted one,” he said.
“He’s become a very match tough,” Federer said. “He always shows up. It’s tough to beat him.”