By Jane Voigt
July 15, 2019 — You didn’t have to watch the final to know who fans were routing for. The loudest cheers went to Roger Federer. The less enthusiastic ones to Novak Djokovic. Yet no matter how hard the people cheered and pulled and hoped that their guy would win his 9th Wimbledon title and 21st Grand Slam overall, it didn’t happen. The loss was a punch in the gut to Federer who later told the press “this one hurts.”
I, for one, am one of those fans. I know I shouldn’t come right out and say such a thing because I’m a journalist and shouldn’t have a bias and, on top of that, shouldn’t admit to having a bias. But forget that just for a minute, because this one hurt me too. I woke up a couple times last night, mulling over the missed opportunities Federer had: up a break in the fifth, two championship points … There were more.
Federer did not play the big points well, an unlikely characteristic for him, the man with the most Grand Slam titles in history, the man who has fashioned himself after a tennis Houdini of sorts always able to pull a rabbit out of his court bag when necessary. Yet not on Sunday, July 14. Instead, Djokovic was the man with the keenly defensive skills and the mind that over and over would not let Federer rise to his finest.
“I was probably the most demanding demanding match I was ever part of,” Djokovic said, as reported by The New York Times. “Mentally, this was a different level.”
It’s personal for Djokovic. He told ESPN before the final “I’m here to make history,” throwing down the gauntlet as clearly as he could when at times he’s danced around his intentions to appear, well, Federer-like. Djokovic has always wanted the adulation that Roger routinely gets. Djokovic wants respect, demands it. He wants the crowds on his side, history to remember him only. He’s number one. But Djokovic isn’t Federer by a long shot on- or off-court.
“Of course, if you have the majority of the crowd on your side, it helps, it gives you motivation, it gives you strength, it gives you energy,” Djokovic said. “When you don’t, you have to find it within.”
The moment the match ended was plump with emotion. For Novak. For Roger. For their teams and families. For fans inside and outside Centre Court.
The spotlight shone on Djokovic. Here was his chance to act like a champion: gracious, humble and appreciative. Instead he cast a disobdient look, almost a sneer, to his player box, first, then to the crowds. Then he began to strut before turning to Federer, who was waiting at the net. That Djokovic – defiant, angry and vindictive – is the one he doesn’t want people to witness but can’t hide. That’s the guy who yells at ballkids and denies that he did. That’s the guy who heads the ATP Player Council and refuses to accept that his friend Justin Gimelstob (former player and coach, tennis commentator, ATP Council member) was found guilty of assaulting his best friend on the streets on Halloween in front of their families and was convicted in a no-contest decision. They are both cast from the same mold.
Djokovic’s victory, his 6th Wimbledon title and 16th major overall, will go on record as the longest men’s final at Wimbledon: 4 hours and 57 minutes. The battle went the distance, five sets. Fittingly, it employed the new tiebreak rule. At 12-12 in the fifth, competitors would play a tiebreak – first to seven points by two points – instead of going on and on until one would win the set by two games. That archaic format hit the wall last year, after Kevin Anderson and John Isner protested loudly. They’d ended their 5-set semifinal at 24-22 in the fifth, Anderson so broken he could hardly compete in the final, two days later, and quickly lost to Djokovic.
Federer lost all three tiebreaks in Sunday’s final 7-6(5), 1-6, 7-6(4), 4-6, 13-12 (3), although the ATP labels him the “All-time leader in percent of tiebreaks won” at 65.1%. So what happened Sunday to this leader? He stumbled. No matter how hard the crowd pulled for their hero, he was mentally stuck and slow to react.
“When the crowd is chanting ‘Roger,’ I hear ‘Novak,” Djokovic said. “It sounds silly, but it is like that. I try to convince myself that it’s like that.”
The Times story said Djokovic smiled when he revealed that trick, his rabbit-out-of-a-court-bag moment. I can imagine that smile, if it were truly a smile rather than a smirk, which would stab the heart of tennis and announce that in his alternate world he is better than Federer. In that world Djokovic gets the adulation he so desparately craves through an imaginary trope.
Federer does not live in an imaginary world. Neither does he crave adulation or titles anymore. His goal is to enjoy his time on court, and to win Wimbledon.
“It [winning slams] used to be a big deal when we [big three] were close,” Roger said in a video of his press conference from Wimbledon. “it’s been different since. The chase is in a differnt place. It’s not so much in trying to stay ahead. If someone else does [break the record] then, well … I didn’t become a tennis player to do that. i’m very happy with my level of play.”
I wonder if Novak Djokovic will ever be happy with his level of play or with himself. He’ll say he’s happy. He’ll play the role of leader and equanimous man, yet somehow his authentic character will shadow him and thrwat his attempts for perfection. The sad ending is this. Federer is not perfect, so looking up to him is flawed in and of itself. The only place Djokovic will find peace, then, is in his imagination which rewarded him Sunday with another title from the most prestigious of Grand Slams … Wimbledon.