Welcome to Tennis Elbow, the column that looks back on the week that was in the world of tennis. This week, Charles Blouin-Gascon rewatches one of the best matches he’s ever seen.
A year later, it still is so surreal that Novak Djokovic won the 2019 Wimbledon final.
A year later, we still think it’s somewhat of a dream that the Serb managed to grab his fifth career Wimbledon title by escaping death about 18,000 different times against the man whom many have hailed as the greatest men’s tennis player in history (i.e. debatable) on his own favourite surface—and that he did so by winning three tiebreaks against the single best tiebreak player in men’s history (i.e. non-debatable).
A match for the ages.
— ATP Tour (@atptour) July 12, 2020
A year later, we know that it’s a match that showed just how clinical and clutch Djokovic has become on the sport’s biggest stages and biggest moments. The final score said the match ended with the Serb grabbing a 7-6(5), 1-6, 7-6(4), 4-6 and 13-12(3) win, but those are mere numbers.
Since the match’s one-year anniversary came a year ago in the middle of last week, we thought it would be fun to watch it again in full, all four hours and 57 minutes of it yes, and to keep a running diary of everything as we experience it all once more.
We edited it all for brevity’s sake, of course.
1-0 Federer wins on serve. Pretty routine win on serve from the Swiss, who has the entire crowd behind him to cheer him on and will him to victory.
On the changeover, they show a graphic that states that Djokovic is vying to defend a Wimbledon title for the second time in his career after 2014 and 2015. His opponent in those two finals? The one he’s facing four years later. That’s the dirty secret about Federer: for possibly the greatest player in history, and certainly on this surface, he’s had his lunch snatched quite a few times—especially against Djokovic.
1-1 Djokovic holds on serve. The two players seem to be both nervous and feeling each other out. Federer looks to end points quickly to either, whether with an advantage or not—which in this game translated into three unforced errors.
As we wait for the Swiss to serve again, the commentators mention that Djokovic holds a 25-22 edge in their head-to-head rivalry, including a stellar 19-9 record since 2011. “Really, he has been the dominant force in men’s tennis,” they conclude. You love to hear it.
On serve at 2-1 Federer. The two players have apparently settled in now and drawn the battle lines: the Swiss will look to stay at or close to the baseline and finish points fairly quickly while Djokovic can and will move around in the hopes to gain an edge there. He’ll also attack the Federer backhand, where he has a clear advantage.
In a perfect bit of foreshadowing, during the changeover the commentators ask whether Federer’s age might show here, whether he’ll be okay sustaining a top level and effort for five full sets. Well the answer is that somehow he had it in him yes, and it still wasn’t enough.
On serve at 2-2. The Serb holds on for a tricky service game, where we get the first instance of audience and fans clapping a Djokovic double-fault. (Before long, the Serb would shut them all the way up and it was wonderful.) We also saw the first lost challenge from Federer, a tradition that’s unlike any other for which he now is 4 of 18 at the event. Lovely. (He would go to 5 of 19 in the same game.)
The commentators explain that the winner of the first set, in this rivalry, has gone on to win 39 of the head-to-head matches. Hold that thought.
Let’s jump forward a bit.
On serve at 4-3 Federer. Just a quick note to mention that we see a young teenage fan with an RF hat and a t-shirt that says “C’MON ROGER.” He’s euphoric now but he’ll be absolutely crushed eventually and we spare a thought and prayer for him: hopefully, the last year hasn’t been too rough on the kid.
Djokovic wins the set 7-6(5). Djokovic came into the final with six tiebreaks won in 10 tries in 2019 while Federer had won 15 of 18 played. How did he win this first one, let alone two more to win the final?
Well he did so by being just about flawless and playing situational tennis while letting Federer, who missed two early opportunities on the first two Djokovic service points, lose on his own. He didn’t do it right away: from 1-3 down, Federer jumped to a 5-3 lead but somehow…lost 7-5? Jeez lol. Federer tensed up and missed four shots in a row. You love to see it.
Four hours and 57 minutes of pure drama ?
Step this way to re-live last year’s men’s final ?#WimbledonRecreated
— Wimbledon (@Wimbledon) July 12, 2020
Federer breaks serve twice and leads 4-0. Somehow, to his everlasting credit, Federer feels reinvigorated, not crushed, after dropping the first set and it’s Djokovic whose form dips. Federer breaks the Serb’s serve twice for good measure and it’s quickly apparent that this is a lost set for Djokovic. If he’s going to grab another Wimbledon trophy, he’ll have to do it the hard way.
Let’s use this lost set to reiterate how little we care for all the Wimbledon traditions and how seriously the tournament believes in its own myth: we don’t care about the fact they call it the gentlemen’s and ladies’ singles draws, or that they don’t have any sponsor visible on the courts, or that they dress up umpires and line judges as if they were head masters at a private school, or their love for strawberries and cream or…
We don’t care. End of rant.
We open with a shot of folks sitting inside the royal box. Commentators highlight that the duke and duchess are present in the front row, which is expected, and so are Stefan Edberg and a number of important English folks that we don’t know and… by god is this Jeff Bezos? Nooooo not a billionaire!!
On serve at 2-1 Federer. Another missed challenge from Federer in first game of the set. The Swiss’s level hasn’t dipped but Djokovic seems to be out of his funk finally. For how long? Djokovic makes another double fault that the crowd cheers on. We see you, all of you, and we will cheer when your favourite loses.
On serve at 5-4. In the midst of the best and easiest Djokovic service game of the entire match, we see a wild and disheveled Englishman sporting a blazer and, underneath, a pink Hawaiian shirt. It’s absolutely glorious. Unless something drastic happens, this thing is headed to a tiebreak.
Federer next escapes a 15-30 jam with relative ease. Someone from the commenting team remarks that, “Roger does what he does best. Win the point on his serve.” Thanks for such insight.
Djokovic wins the set 7-6(4). Another minor miracle from the Serb to just make it to 6-6 after escaping a 30-40 jam, and thus set point, at 4-5. Djokovic means business. As for this tiebreak, the Serb jumped to a quick 3-0 lead and that was pretty much that. From there, things moved to 4-1 and then Djokovic won an absolute unreal point to bring it to 5-1. For good measure, we got a missed Federer challenge—another one.
— Wimbledon (@Wimbledon) July 12, 2020
Somehow, Djokovic leads this final two sets to one despite not even getting one single break point on the Federer serve. Whatever it takes, man. “Federer now must find a way to win two straight sets? Can he do it, Tim?”, asked one commentator to his colleague, Tim Henman. “He can do it,” Tim answers, “but I don’t think he will.”
Oh but how close he would be of doing it, Tim. Meanwhile, Becker is asked the same thing and explains that he believes there is still a lot of tennis left to be played. LOL way to stick your neck out, Becker.
Federer breaks serve to lead 3-2. A fortuitous challenge win gives Federer a break point and he takes full advantage. But we’re here to talk about whoever it is from the commenting team who was discussing how many each member of the Big Three had Grand Slam titles to their name and slipped up and said that Djokovic had 16, well we see you and we hear you. You’re the real MVP.
Federer breaks serve to lead 5-2. What’s perhaps most insane about Djokovic is how he can simply decide to reset so easily. There are times in a match where he’ll just almost stop trying as if he’s just decided that it’s better to simply discard this point, game, set and to, like, simply start anew again? It’s almost like he’s telling himself, “Nope this set doesn’t work, let’s just try again in the next one.”
Federer wins the set 6-4. The Swiss needed two tries but he eventually did it. We’re levelled at two sets apiece. The fans are just so, so happy that their beloved Federer is right there. You don’t see it but we have a devilish grin as we write this; their pain will be our joy.
Here you go. This one is, as they say, for all the marbles. Our fun commentators now try to extrapolate what it means that Federer has decided to leave the court before the start of the set while Djokovic didn’t. It probably means a whole lot of nothing, folks, but we understand that you must talk about some things even when there is nothing to talk about.
Djokovic leads things on-serve at 2-1. We start with a nice little graphic that shows that Djokovic has a 29-10 record in fifth sets, including a stellar 8-1 mark at Wimbledon. He would add to both those marks before long.
This is far from scientific but by our count, Djokovic has won every single point this match where he has served to the body of Federer. Maybe keep doing this?
Federer ties things at 2-2. The Swiss saves three break points, including the first two on second serves, when Djokovic’s play turns tight and super tentative—and the crowd goes absolutely bonkers. They look so, so innocent in retrospect. Which player will be the first to crack?
Djokovic breaks serve to lead 4-2. For the first time, we hear something approximating support from the Wimbledon crowd for the world No. 1 player.
But here’s something we had forgot about this match: the Serb was up a break and got to as close as six points away from the championship. And, much to Federer’s credit, he couldn’t close things then; he double-faulted, got broken, and on and on they went.
Of course, the commentators had to mention something to the effect that Djokovic had choked the title away. Fuck off lol. We expect to hear the same about Federer in a little bit.
— TSH Tennis (@TSH_Tennis) July 19, 2020
On serve at 7-6 Djokovic. Here’s where the fun begins. Because we know what happens next, we’re not as nervous as we otherwise would be—but what happens next still doesn’t make all that much sense. Over the previous couple of changeovers, neither player has appeared quite dangerous returning the other’s serve. And yet…
Federer breaks to go up 8-7. Ever with the benefit of a year to think things over, this break still doesn’t make much sense. The Serb was up 30-0 and cruising to what should have been another hold but then he somehow lost a point where he hit a body serve to Federer? Suddenly the Swiss had won four points in a row and he had the break he needed.
Djokovic breaks right back to tie things at 8-8. What a gutsy game from the Serb and we’re not quite sure what’s our favourite part of it. Is it the fact that we got to see a blatantly wrong Federer challenge? Is it the fact that Djokovic spared Federer not one, but two match points? Is it the fact that the Swiss had just hit two aces, his 22nd and 23rd of the match, to get said two match points? Is it the unforced error Federer makes on the first match point? Is it the passing shot Djokovic hits to erase the second one?
No, what we love most about this game is the fact that seemingly every single person in the stadium was against him. Right after Federer goes up 40-15, we see a blond woman standing up, ecstatic, lifting up one single finger in the air as if to say, “Only one more.” That’s right. Federer was one point away from the win—and he lost.
Hey, tv commentators, who’s choking now?
On serve at 12-11 Djokovic. Where do we even start? After four hours and 37 minutes, including a full 100 just for this fifth set, the Serb escapes on his final service game of the match in what was perhaps the craziest game of this entire final. The Serb even saves two break points, including one when a wrong line call on a Federer approach gives the Swiss the point even though Djokovic maybe-but-probably-not could have hit the ball had it not been called out. Unreal, we are speechless.
Throughout the game, the crowd is absolutely mental in its support for Federer. They’ll all feel soul-crushing pain not 15 minutes later, you love to think about it.
Djokovic wins the 2019 Wimbledon’s men’s single title – 7-6(5), 1-6, 7-6(4), 4-6, 13-12(3). After a relatively straightforward final tiebreak in which Djokovic played spotless and Federer played tight, the Serb has done it: he’s grabbed three tiebreaks against the player with the very best winning percentage in tiebreaks in history and on said player’s favourite and best surface. The backhand down the line, this shot that truly propelled him to the heights he has reached, to give him a 6-3 edge here was ludicrous but what else can you even say? Thus concludes the single best win of the last season in men’s tennis.
Follow Charles Blouin-Gascon on Twitter @RealCBG