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July 6, 2014 7:48 pm
Since the start of this year’s Wimbledon Roger Federer has been wearing shoes marked with the number seven, the number of times he has won this tournament, which must have irritated the hell out of his fellow-competitors. One small compensation for him is that he will not have to shell out for replacements.
He made an epic attempt to make it a record-breaking eight on Centre Court on Sunday but Novak Djokovic of Serbia finally wore him down in the fifth set for his own second men’s single title here.
Djokovic had to fight uphill against a crowd almost as strongly against him as when he lost to Andy Murray last year. But he is a player of consistent excellence and a man of considerable charm; one day he might win them over.
The focus, however, was on Federer, the oldest man to reach this final in 40 years. The tone of some reports echoed last month’s D-Day commemoration, as though he were a frail old warrior returning to the Normandy beaches for the final salute.
He is 32, for heaven’s sake, and it was Djokovic who had to call for medical treatment and looked the wearier at the end. This was not entirely surprising: Federer specialises in economy of movement; Djokovic hurls himself about. And one sensed all along that he needed this win much more: he had got into a sequence of reaching regular finals, but then losing them (five of his previous six).
The former champion Boris Becker had been brought into the Djokovic camp to get him to focus better on the biggest points. These came in the fourth set when Federer, two sets to one and 5-2 down, burst back to win five games in a row, in the midst of which he saved a match point. Becker wore an expression of pure wtf: What the Federer?
The rest of the match was a matter of inches here and there. In the first three sets, there was only one break of service and both men were playing tennis of a quality that might never have been matched even on this court. In terms of mortal combat, it could not equal 2008, when Rafael Nadal first cracked the stranglehold Federer had gained over the championships. But this was a match of sensational strokeplay, in contrasting styles.
It was like an argument in which one of the parties refuses to get angry. “Take that, you swine,” Djokovic seemed to be saying when he crunched one of his double-fisted backhands; Federer would languidly send it back again: “If you say so.”
He is the embodiment of his country. Like Swiss trains, watches and bank accounts Federer continues to function in circumstances others would deem untenable. He simply will not give up: if Djokovic hurled him over a cliff he would bounce. And only moments after being forced to surrender on this occasion, he told the crowd, in case they were wondering: “See you next year.”
“Thank you for letting me win one today,” said Djokovic when it was his turn on the microphone. It was good-humoured but it did convey the underlying sense that although, in his mellow tennis old age, Federer is prepared to loan the Challenge Cup more often than not, there is a sense others win only by his grace and good favour.
And it really was almost his own once again. The first set went to a tie-break and Djokovic got to set point which Federer saved with a thundering 122 mph ace, which was followed by two of his opponent’s rare unforced errors.
In the second, Djokovic got a break early and held on. The third also went to a tie-break but this time it was Federer who cracked, blowing a cross-court forehand when he had the point at his mercy. But he was gifted the fourth, setting up the decider. It finished 6-7, 6-4, 7-6, 5-7, 6-4 to Djokovic.
The crowd warmed to him in victory, This was not the final they wanted – in the past couple of years a British presence has become something they regard as a contractual obligation. In the end, two of the big four came through to contest a great final on a warm summer’s afternoon, so they could forget The Man Who Wasn’t There. Andy what-did-you-say-his-name-was?
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