All athletes want to be dominant (who wouldn’t want to win all the time?), but it’s usually resiliency that’s makes them memorable.
While Peyton Manning has every counting record imaginable, the most prominent game of his career came to fruition after he threw a pick-six to fall behind 21-3 against his biggest rival before coming back to advance to the Super Bowl.
The 2004 Red Sox will be remembered forever for climbing out of a 3-0 series hole against the Yankees, yet few could recall a single detail about their sweep of the Cardinals in the World Series.
And the prevailing Michael Jordan performance? The Flu Game.
For Novak Djokovic, while his 2015 campaign has climbed up the ranks in terms of all-time great seasons, his comprehensive ownership of the ATP Tour left something to be desired. He’s been winning close matches, but many have felt perfunctory. Even against an opponent like Andy Murray, it feels like a fait accompli that Djokovic’s B or B+ level will be sufficient because the player facing him can’t sustain the requisite level.
Losing in the French Open final against Stan Wawrinka saw Djokovic fail to complete his career Grand Slam and suffer his first heartbreak of the season. Not only did that open the door for the rest of the tour, it put Djokovic at a fork in the road moment for his season. Would he bounce back or once again come away from an otherwise dominant year with just one major? The world No. 1 faced that fork in the road moment not just in the macro, but the micro in his win over Roger Federer in Sunday’s Wimbledon final.
Playing top-notch tennis for two entire sets, Djokovic and Federer were deadlocked on a point-to-point basis, except the Serb had three set points for a two set lead. Federer saved them all with brilliant play, the third of which can be seen here:
After Djokovic had saved two set points on his serve to get to a tiebreaker and claim the first set, Federer ultimately returned the favor and denied six set points to steal the second.
Federer then preserved a dicey service game yet again to start the third, and found himself with chances to go up a break. In such situations prior, Djokovic has capitulated. In the 2013 U.S. Open final, he had 0-40 on Rafael Nadal’s serve to take command of the third set. He failed to capitalize and then was broken himself, a blow that ended up costing him the match. Also, just a month ago against Wawrinka, he again had his opponent up against it, didn’t seize the chance, and was then broken himself.
Instead, as he had in the first set, Djokovic steadied to hold. He then promptly broke Federer before a brief rain delay came, after which Djokovic handled his business, closing out the third without taking any scenic routes. The delay clearly hurt Federer, who at nearly 34 can’t just stop and start again as effectively as his younger self could. Nevertheless, it was in this spot last year that Djokovic faltered and coughed up a commanding fourth set lead. Not so here, as he gained the upper hand immediately in set four and didn’t even have to serve it out, breaking Federer again to win the title, his third on the lawns of London.
It’s a shame that the lack of a fifth set will prevent the 2015 final from being seen as a worthy successor to the 2014 edition, particularly because this one wasn’t just equal, it was superior. As stated in the preview, both players came into Sunday in finer form than last year, which produced a scratchy match more about emotional drama than quality of play. The first two sets of this one were downright sublime, and though Federer couldn’t quite sustain an elite level from there on, Djokovic did, forgoing his usual lulls he submits in the best-of-five format.
While his six hour marathon over Nadal in the 2012 Australian Open final is his signature major, this win was Djokovic’s best combination of being both straightforward and superb in quality, at least dating back to when he established himself as an all-timer. Despite dropping the second set, the outcome never really seemed in doubt, an incredible feat against the greatest grass court player ever, regardless of his age.
Federer has been deified by purists (read: “people rich enough to buy the watches he endorses”) for his ability to make things look easy, mask the difficulty of the task at hand and perform a real-life version of a Jedi mind trick. Nadal, on the other hand, responds to adversity by locking horns with his opponent as both are submerged into a cauldron with a temperature of infinity degrees to see who can last longer.
Djokovic is different. His picture perfect mechanics have been honed into a seemingly flawless player. His adversity is internal. Consider his Slam streakiness, as he won four out of five majors in 2011 and into 2012, then just one of the next nine before his current stretch of three out of the last five. It’s as if his penance for being technically perfect is to short circuit here and there.
His loss in Paris hit the reset button on the 2015 season, but Novak Djokovic displayed yet again that his most admirable trait is the ability to press that button within himself, release his tension in a fiery outburst and start anew. In doing so yet again, he regained control not just over his ninth major, but the tour as a whole.