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 didn’t 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 Champions’ Dinner. “I wasn’t serving the best. Roger [Federer] was dictating play from the back of the court. So 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. Ever since that time, my professional career as a young player, I have trained on sliding on courts. I do enjoy it.”
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 either 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 like the expensive perfume floating up from the Royal Box. 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 tie-break 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 that he still has the tennis and the physicality to beat the best – especially if their name is Rafael Nadal. Against Djokovic, however, he cannot shift his mental block.
The fact that 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 simply cannot find a way to break Djokovic down when it matters, which helps to explain why he is now on a five-match losing streak at the slams, dating back to 2012.
Djokovic, meanwhile, has moved to 16 majors. He turned 32 in May, which makes him just over a year younger than Nadal. And he is beset by none of the same chronic injury concerns. As tennis’ 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 really look that age,” Djokovic told Woodbridge at the Guildhall. “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 No. 1. “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 in my life, 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 unprecedented 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.”