Fed­erer, Djokovic have met their match

Wim­ble­don fi­nal­ists en­ter latest meet­ing as near-per­fect equals

The Washington Post Sunday - - SPORTS - BY SALLY JENK­INS

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.”

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