Re­vealed

How Djokovic used his child­hood ski­ing skills to out­fox Fed­erer

The Daily Telegraph - Sport - - Front Page - By Si­mon Briggs TEN­NIS COR­RE­SPON­DENT

The long­est-ever Wim­ble­don fi­nal caused all sorts of chaos on Sun­day night, in­clud­ing de­lays to the tra­di­tional Cham­pi­ons’ Din­ner, which is now held in the Guild­hall on the other side of Lon­don. The speeches did not be­gin un­til af­ter 12.30am, and the evening’s two main stars – Si­mona Halep and No­vak Djokovic – were still pos­ing for pho­tographs half an hour later.

Nei­ther seemed at all both­ered. And for Djokovic, it was al­ways go­ing to be a long night of cel­e­bra­tions in any case. There is huge sat­is­fac­tion in pro­duc­ing a peak per­for­mance on the big­gest stage – which is what Halep had done on Satur­day to trounce Ser­ena Wil­liams in just 56 min­utes. But an­other test of a true cham­pion is to play badly and still win.

“For most of the match I was on the back foot,” Djokovic ac­knowl­edged to the for­mer dou­bles leg­end Todd Wood­bridge, dur­ing an on­stage in­ter­view at the din­ner. “I wasn’t serv­ing the best. Roger [Fed­erer] was dic­tat­ing play from the back of the court. I fought a lot. I spent a lot of time dur­ing the match quite far be­hind the base­line. But I am ac­cus­tomed to that. I like slid­ing on that sur­face. I think it has some­thing to do with my child­hood, ski­ing a lot. I guess the amount of ski­ing and slid­ing on the snow has adapted my an­kles to that type of mo­tion.”

It wasn’t just Djokovic’s an­kle flex­i­bil­ity that dragged him through Sun­day’s ebbs and flows, but his ex­tra­or­di­nary re­silience. He soaked up 94 win­ners from the great­est grass-court player of mod­ern times, while strug­gling to bring his first serve or his fa­bled re­turn into play.

The chal­lenge of man­ag­ing his own vul­ner­a­bil­i­ties al­most over­whelmed him – as we saw dur­ing a bizarrely er­ratic se­cond-set per­for­mance which, if it had been de­liv­ered by Bernard Tomic or Nick Kyr­gios, would have been cas­ti­gated for its lack of ef­fort. Yet there was a strange at­mos­phere on Cen­tre Court as Fed­erer un­furled his all-vol­ley­ing, all-danc­ing grace notes. As if peo­ple were wait­ing for Djokovic’s grit­tier game to bite.

Even when Fed­erer held two match points on his own serve at 8-7, 40-15 in the de­cid­ing set, the ten­sion still hung in the air. Rightly so. Fed­erer lost the next seven points in a rush of wild fore­hands and mis­con­ceived net rushes. And when we reached the first 12-12 tiebreak to be played in sin­gles ten­nis, his chal­lenge faded. Fed­erer com­mit­ted 11 un­forced er­rors across the match’s three tie-breaks – a third of the 33 points played. Djokovic, al­most in­evitably, made none.

So where does this leave us, head­ing into the fi­nal slam of the year in New York? Fed­erer will be 38 by then, but he has shown he still has the ten­nis and the phys­i­cal­ity to beat the best – es­pe­cially if his name is Rafael Nadal. Against Djokovic, how­ever, he can­not shift his men­tal block.

The fact the two men share a frosty re­la­tion­ship may not help, nor the sense that time is running out. Both de­tails add ex­tra weight to Fed­erer’s racket arm. But there is also a tac­ti­cal el­e­ment: Fed­erer can­not find a way to break Djokovic down when it mat­ters, which helps to ex­plain why he is now on a five­match los­ing streak at the slams.

Djokovic, mean­while, has moved to 16 ma­jors. He turned 32 in May, and is just over a year younger than Nadal. And he is be­set by none of the same chronic in­jury con­cerns. As ten­nis’s old firm, Fed­erer and

Nadal must be in­creas­ingly aware that their 15-year strug­gle for sta­tis­ti­cal pri­macy is in dan­ger of be­ing ren­dered ir­rel­e­vant by a third party.

“I am 32 now, though I don’t look that age,” Djokovic told Wood­bridge. “It’s just a num­ber, like Roger said. I think I have a few more years left in my legs.”

Djokovic then em­barked on a long list of con­di­tion­als that feed into his sta­tus as the world No1. “If ev­ery­thing goes the right way, if I man­age to bal­ance things out in my pri­vate life, as long as I have the sup­port of the clos­est peo­ple, if I get to com­pete, it will al­ways be at the high­est level. And the ten­dency is al­ways to win Wim­ble­don.”

Wood­bridge picked up on this last com­ment, be­cause Djokovic’s five Wim­ble­don tro­phies now leave him only three short of Fed­erer’s eight. “I think you have heard it first that he is af­ter the record?” the host sug­gested.

Djokovic smiled con­fi­dently – ominously, even. “In a mat­ter of words, yes.”

Cham­pi­ons: No­vak Djokovic with women’s sin­gles win­ner Si­mona Halep

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