“As serious as a heart attack,” is how the phrase goes. Can a tennis match be as serious as 10 heart attacks? That’s probably how many your average Novak Djokovic or Roger Federer fan had during Djokovic’s five-hour, 7-6 (5), 1-6, 7-6 (4), 4-6, 13-12 (3) win over Federer in Sunday's Wimbledon final. If that 13-12 score looks like a typo, that’s because this was the first singles match in Wimbledon’s 142-year history to finish with a tiebreaker in the deciding set.
Which is fitting, because this match also brought the curtain down on a decade of outsized and historic achievements at the All England Club, one that began with John Isner’s 70-68 fifth-set win over Nicolas Mahut in the second round in 2010. Since that marathon, Centre Court has been the site of Andy Murray’s 2013 triumph, which ended a title drought of 77 years for British men; three of Serena Williams’ 23 major victories and two Federer’s 20; a clean sweep of 10 titles for the ATP’s Big Four; and three memorable finals between Djokovic and Federer. The best players of this era keep finding ways to top themselves, and take their rivalries to new heights.
This was the longest and most dramatic of the three Djokovic-Federer finals, but it ended in the same nerve-wracking fashion as the others, with Djokovic finding a way to hold off Federer’s grass court attack, and the 15,000 fans roaring him on, just long enough to squeak out a tense victory. The most important difference between this match and the other two was how the tiebreakers played out. In 2014 and 2015, Djokovic and Federer split four of them; on Sunday, Djokovic won all three.
If the old Simona Halep were still around, she’d be jealous of the new Simona Halep.
The old Simona lost her first three Grand Slam finals in painfully close matches. When she finally did win one, against Sloane Stephens at the 2018 French Open, she had to labor mightily to come back from a set and a break down.
When things went south for the old Simona, she would rush from one point to the next; her coach once threatened to quit if she didn’t get her act together. At 5’6”, she struggled to stand toe to toe with her taller, more powerful opponents; against the most powerful of them all, Serena Williams, Halep won just one match in her first 10 tries. The old Simona also hated playing on grass. This wasn’t surprising, considering that hadn’t been a single grass court in her home country, Romania. She lost in the first or second round at Wimbledon four times; the one time she made the semifinals, she hurt her ankle.
But this Wimbledon, the new Simona said, was going to be different. She had a new coach. She was putting the past behind her. She had her emotions under control. She was “chill.” Most important, she finally felt like she knew how to move, and how to play, on grass. Frankly, I wasn’t sure if I believed her; Halep has turned over a lot of new leaves in the past. But the proof is in the results, and there’s no denying that what Halep did over the last two weeks was very much a new thing for her. In the third round, she beat Victoria Azarenka, a player she had once struggled against, 6-3, 6-1. In the fourth round, she ended the dream run of 15-year-old Cori Gauff in a pressure-filled contest. And then, in her last three matches, she faced three opponents—Shuai Zhang, Elina Svitolina and Serena Williams—who had a combined 15-5 record against her. The New Simona beat them all in straight sets. Most spectacularly, she made just three unforced errors in beating Serena, 6-2, 6-2, in 56 minutes in Saturday's final. If winning her first French Open title last year was the effort of a lifetime for Halep, winning her first Wimbledon, on her worst surface, was a breeze. “I’m very sure that was the best match of my life,” a still slightly incredulous Halep said after the final. “...I’m happy about what I achieved these two weeks. I can’t describe how I feel winning Wimbledon. It’s pretty special.” Asked when she believed she could win the tournament, she laughed and said, “Today.”
When did Halep’s grass-court turnaround officially begin? In the quarterfinals against Zhang, she was down 1-4, and nearly 1-5, in the first set. The old Simona might have pulled the mental ripcord and rushed into the second set, but not the new version. Maybe her comeback propelled her into the final weekend with a new level of confidence, because there really was something different about Halep when she faced Svitolina and Serena. During the points and between them, she played and moved with a controlled sense of aggression and a steady intensity. Halep likes to use the word “chill” to describe her new state of mind; I’d say another “ch” word is also appropriate: “channeled.” “I always play well when I have emotions,” Halep said. “I don’t try to ignore them or I don’t try to fight against them. I try to take them as a positive and just try to control them to the right—to put them in the right way, which I did today. That’s why I was able to do the best match.” It only took two points on Saturday to see that Halep’s semifinal momentum had carried over into the final. Serena hit a forehand approach, and Halep went back crosscourt for a clean passing-shot winner. From that point on, whatever Serena did, Halep had the answer. Yes, she ran everything down, and only made three unforced errors, but she also forced forced Serena to hit from uncomfortable positions, over and over again. She defended offensively, and made hitting on the dead run look easy. Halep, who spent the majority of her Friday practice hitting returns, read Serena’s serve well and held her to just two aces.
I found Tim Henman on the Players’ Lawn staring into space. I put my hand on his shoulder to bring him out his trance. Henman, four times a Wimbledon semifinalist, had just finished commentating on Novak Djokovic’s five-set victory over Roger Federer for BBC television.
“I’m in shock,” were Henman’s first words. “How many times has Roger Federer got to 40-15 serving for a match and lost? Very, very rarely. And on grass? Never. I don’t understand what happened.”
Henman was not alone. There was an feeling of bewilderment—mingled, it must be said with disappointment—at the outcome of a thrilling if far from perfect duel that had seen the loser play the better tennis and actually win more points by a wide margin—218 to 204—but fail, ultimately, to lay his hands on the Wimbledon trophy for the ninth time.
That sounds harsh on Djokovic who has now won four of the last five Grand Slams played. He did it, despite returning so poorly that he never held a break point on the Swiss serve in the first three sets. Yet, by winning two tiebreakers, he led by two sets to one. And then of course he went on to win the first fifth set tiebreaker in Wimbledon singles history. If ever there was an example of the need to win the big points, this was it.
But it also reflected glowingly on Djokovic, the player and the man. Federer was playing better for much of the match and was benefitting from the support of at least 80% of the Centre Crowd crowd. Yet, Djokovic was able to block that out, pretending the calls of “Roger, Roger” were really “Novak, Novak” and proving maybe more than he has ever done before that he is a competitor of the most unbending intransigent kind; a warrior of iron who simply refuses to accept defeat. And for that, Djokovic must be held in the highest regard. The result provided one of several incongruities that became a feature of a splendid Wimbledon, blessed by good weather and increased crowds on every single day over 2018. One concerned age but more of that later. The most incomprehensible concerned tactics. Before the blockbuster semifinal in which Federer and Rafael Nadal served up a grass court banquet fit for Royalty (the Duke & Duchess of Cambridge were there to accept), the majority of experts were agreed on one thing: the longer the points, the more chance Nadal would have of winning. In fact the opposite turned out to be true. As rallies of 20 to 30 strokes criss-crossed the Centre Court lawn, it was the mobile, fleet-footed Federer who proved the steadier in execution and won the vast majority of riveting duels. Nadal kept shaking his head, perplexed.
LONDON—Down the road in the distant future, perhaps when his grandchildren ask him about his most gratifying tennis triumph, Novak Djokovic will look them in the eye and proudly share, “My victory over Roger Federer in the 2019 Wimbledon final.”
Djokovic seldom played his best brand of tennis in this riveting confrontation as Federer fought valiantly for a ninth Wimbledon crown and a 21st major. The Serbian, unrelenting in going after a fifth Wimbledon and 16th major, suffered through one of toughest days in a match of consequence because his most revered weapon—the return of serve—was simply not there for most of the match. He was too often at Federer’s mercy from the backcourt.
And yet, in the end, after four hours and 57 minutes in the Wimbledon’s longest singles final, Djokovic contained his emotions in outlasting Federer 7-6 (5), 1-6, 7-6 (4), 4-6, 13-12 (3). It was the first time that a singles contest at the 2019 Wimbledon concluded in a tiebreaker since that forum was instituted this year.
The fact Djokovic even got there was a testament to his mental toughness in the most pressure-filled situations. The first set was well played on both sides of the net as both men held steadfastly to set up a tiebreaker. Serving at 5-3, Federer faltered, pulling a forehand wide. He missed another similarly on the following point. Serving at 5-6, Federer miss-hit a backhand crosscourt wide. Djokovic had turned the tables, collecting four points in a row to seal the set. It had taken 58 minutes for Djokovic to salvage that set, but Federer needed only 25 minutes to make it one set all. Djokovic was broken three times in the second set, winning only 27% of his first serve points and 33% on his second delivery. He made ten unforced errors and won only eleven points in that set, largely beating himself while Federer sustained his higher standards. While Djokovic remained a stranger in his own skin on the return of serve all through the third set, he cut down substantially on his mistakes and faced only one break point. But that was a crucial corner of the match. Djokovic was serving at 4-5, 30-40, set point down. But he met the moment ably, connecting with a 119 MPH first serve to the Federer backhand. The Swiss blocked his return wide and soon Djokovic held on.