For nearly a decade a gang of four dominated the upper reaches of men’s tennis, at one point splitting 34 of 35 major championships among them. No longer.
When Novak Djokovic pounded a cross-court winner past Roger Federer on Sunday afternoon to seal his third Wimbledon championship and ninth grand slam title, the four-way hegemony that has long defined the tour never appeared more like a spot in the rear view mirror. There is the Big One, and there is everyone else.
Djokovic had entered the showdown between the top two seeds with an 8-8 record in grand slam finals, lending it a pivotal feel with respect to his legacy despite an extraordinary run of form this season that included a 47-3 match record and five titles. He would have been the world No1 by more than 3,000 rankings points even if he had lost Sunday’s final, but the questions over his mental fortitude that have persisted through the years – never more than after last month’s shock defeat by Stan Wawrinka in the French Open final – would have redoubled.
Instead Djokovic proved that when he is at his best, there is simply no stopping him. He crunched 46 winners and committed just 16 unforced errors, pounding groundstrokes with metronomic efficiency that pinned Federer to the worn-out baselines through exhausting rallies, punctuating points with winners into the corners and grace notes of deft net play.
Federer’s only choice was to counter Djokovic’s artillery – weapons-grade forehand, stout defence, superior endurance in the baseline rallies – with variety. The seven-times Wimbledon champion tried it all – varying topspin and slice within the points, blending serve-and-volley with traditional baseline exchanges – with the improvisational flair of a chess grandmaster.
The sentimental favourite was never in question despite conditions that fluctuated wildly. The crowd rallied behind the Swiss when he fell behind in his service games and buzzed in anticipation when he staked even the slightest foothold in Djokovic’s. The roar of 15,000 fans exploded when he saved seven set points in a second-set tiebreaker to avoid going two sets down. When he was broken at 2-2 in the fourth set – a sequence that ultimately decided that match – a subdued hush fell over Centre Court as ominous as the grey sky above. Djokovic does not want to be the cowboy in the black hat, but he showed that he will if he must.
“I expected that coming into the match,” Djokovic said. “I think it’s normal because Roger is a champion on and off the court. He’s a very likeable guy. He’s somebody that’s played on this level for so many years. Not judging by the results, but his character, his personality. He’s done all the right things to get that support. More or less anywhere I play against Roger it’s the same. I have to accept it, and I have to work to earn that support. One day.”
Whatever doubts lingered over Djokovic’s nerve, it was Federer who looked anxious during the decisive games of the fourth set with a series of uncharacteristic errors while the world No1 rolled through his service games, at one point winning 11 straight points on his serve after holding from 30-0 down in the opening game. When Federer led 30-0 with Djokovic serving at 4-3, the champion piped in a pair of 121mph aces, then closed out the game with a service winner – and one hand on the trophy.
Posterity may read it as the scalp of a lion in winter, Djokovic bagging a second straight Wimbledon title at the expense of a 33-year-old father of four. But make no mistake, this was vintage-era Federer: the balletic footwork, liquid-whip forehand, effortless serve all working in concert.
While his stamina has fallen off marginally from his stratospheric peak – as an average first-serve speed that faded over the course of the match would suggest – the legitimate world No2 showed well in his record 10th final at the All England Club. Just not well enough to defeat an opponent who at the moment holds the entire tour in his thrall.
At 28, Djokovic’s move from the fringe toward the forefront of the debate over who is the greatest ever seems only a matter of time. Who on the horizon stands in his way? Andy Murray, two major titles in hand, is no doubt a worthy rival. But he has won just eight of their 27 meetings, including losing eight in a row since the Scot’s epochal win in the 2013 Wimbledon final.
Djokovic has performed just as well or better against the next wave – Grigor Dimitrov (five wins, one loss), Kei Nishikori (5-2), Milos Raonic (5-0) – and has yet to lose to the surprise US Open champion Marin Cilic in 13 attempts. Should he remain injury-free, there is no reason he cannot make a serious run at catching up all before him on the all-time major leaderboard: Federer (17), Rafael Nadal (14), Pete Sampras (14), Roy Emerson (12), Rod Laver (11), Bjorn Borg (11) and Bill Tilden (10).
“I’m 28,” he said. “I feel good. I don’t feel old. I have hopefully many more years in front of me. I’m going to try to push my own limits and see how far I can go really with titles and with myself playing on this high level.”