Sequels are supposed to be bigger and better, except they rarely are. This one has a chance to be though. Last year’s Wimbledon final that saw Novak Djokovic outlast Roger Federer in five sets is remembered as an epic despite lacking the quality needed for such a status. It was certainly a good match, as well as unquestionably compelling, however it is only deemed an all-timer because of Djokovic’s collapse in the fourth set.
Federer won the first round that day in a tiebreaker, but fell behind two sets to one when he lost a third set breaker following a set in which he outplayed Djokovic during their service games. Djokovic went up a break early in the fourth, lost it, then got it back to fortify a 5-2 lead. It was there the match went up a level, as, after a Federer hold, Djokovic’s demons in Grand Slam finals surfaced. At this point in time, he had not won a major in 18 months, as the previous five such events following his 2013 Australian Open title saw him suffer three devastating losses to Rafael Nadal, a five set defeat to Stan Wawrinka in Australia and a flat showing in the 2013 Wimbledon final against Andy Murray.
The Serb failed to close out the match, and though he saw a championship point on Federer’s serve, that was erased by an ace. Djokovic’s tightness continued and he ultimately dropped five games in a row to lose the fourth set. He later recovered and delivered the title when he broke Federer at 4-5 on serve in the fifth.
Both players are in much finer form than they were last year. Djokovic has dominated this season and his backhand is far sturdier than it was in London a year ago. As for Federer, he’s moving better, slicing his return more consistently and coming off his best performance in years, a straight set dismissal of Murray.
The quality should be better but the definitive question of Sunday’s final remains: Can Federer sustain his level long enough to test Djokovic’s mental resolve?
While the world No. 1 has had five straight set wins in six matches en route to the final, he was plenty tight against Kevin Anderson and was millimeters away from being down a break in the fifth. He eliminated Richard Gasquet in straights in the semifinals, but was far from convincing in the first set, in which Gasquet failed to capitalize on chances. Once the tiebreaker went his way, Djokovic settled down.
A Federer supporter would submit that his serving could carry him to the title. It’s true that Murray, a world class returner, could barely threaten to break, and that the 17-time Slam champion has only been broke once in six matches. That was also true of last year’s tournament though and he was broken four times in the final. Djokovic is simply on another level than anyone else on tour at that.
Circling back to an earlier observation: Djokovic won last year’s final not on serve, but return. First serves would seem to be the critical swing stat of this championship. In 2014, Djokovic walloped Federer when the latter failed to convert first serves. On the flip side, rallies often went Federer’s way when Djokovic served, as expectations and pressure interfered with Djokovic’s picture-perfect groundstroke mechanics.
Federer was nearly perfect against Murray, it just seems highly unlikely he could muster that type of quality twice in three days. That’s what makes this match so difficult to predict. It’s impossible to know how Djokovic will face his big match woes as well as whether Federer can maintain the requisite quality needed over four hours to apply that pressure.
Never did I imagine even contemplating that Federer could beat Djokovic in a Grand Slam at this point in his careers, but that’s how well he has performed in the last couple weeks.
Prediction: The head says Djokovic, who has only lost two matches since winning in Australia. Recency effect (not just this tournament, but including the French Open final) sides with trusting Federer, as it never feels quite safe to depend on Djokovic (who by the way has won multiple majors in a season just once) in this type of match. Gulp. Djokovic 6-7, 6-3, 5-7, 7-6, 6-2, with playing from behind allowing him to play the type of free and aggressive tennis needed to win.