A year on from what many viewed as his last best chance to add to his record 17 Grand Slam titles, Roger Federer will get another opportunity to make it a magic 18 in the final of Wimbledon. And once again, standing in the way of a man who continues to enshrine his legacy as the greatest player in history will be the current best in the world, Novak Djokovic.
On the final Sunday 12 months ago, it was Djokovic who prevailed after five superb, dramatic sets of tennis to leave Federer tied with Pete Sampras in the Open era on seven Wimbledon titles and still trying to ensure that the 2012 Wimbledon would not be his last Grand Slam win.
In the three years since, there has been no more frequently asked question in tennis than whether the Swiss master can land another Major win. The doubts are perhaps understandable in the context of the commonly accepted wisdom about the lifespan of a top tennis player. But Federer continues to show that his remarkable abilities extend to his longevity. The gracefulness and efficiency of everything he does on court has allowed him to keep competing at the very top of the men’s game at a time when the vast majority of his peers have already settled into retirement -- only four players in the top 100 of the ATP Rankings are older than Federer. Ahead of his 34th birthday next month, Federer will go into Sunday’s final with a chance to become the oldest Grand Slam winner in 33 years.
And Federer’s semifinal performance on Friday was a powerful demonstration of his efficiency. The basic stats read that it was a straight-sets victory over Andy Murray in a little more than two hours. Yet the match was far more competitive that those facts suggest. It was simply that Federer had been ruthless in the decisive moments. He broke three times, on each occasion to take a set, and produced surely one of the greatest serving displays ever seen on Centre Court, facing just a single break point. Throughout, he played at a relentless, undisrupted rhythm. Picking his spots with his serve and taking control with his forehand, it was a vintage Federer display. And, crucially, it meant that, with just one set lost thus far he should go into the final fresh.
Still, the same was true last year, when Djokovic, the unbreakable endurance king, outlasted him in a final that went the distance. Surprisingly, while also winning in straight sets, Djokovic was kept on court marginally longer than Federer in his semifinal victory over Richard Gasquet. It was solid, rather than spectacular from Djokovic, continuing the theme of his Wimbledon so far, although with one notable exception. In the last 16, the Serbian was forced to display all of his incredible powers of resilience to come from two sets down against big-hitting South African Kevin Anderson and stay alive over two days.
In many ways, this whole tournament has been a huge test of Djokovic’s mental strength. It was only a few weeks ago that the 28-year-old suffered perhaps the toughest loss of his career when, having finally beaten Rafael Nadal at the French Open, he fell in the final to Stan Wawrinka with the completion of a Career Grand Slam in his sights.
With eight Grand Slam titles to his name in the strongest era ever in men’s tennis, there is still much for Djokovic to savor. But the pressure will also be on him as he walks onto Centre Court on Sunday. He will be desperate to avoid losing a second Grand Slam final in just over a month, which would take his record in Major finals into the negative.
The prize of victory is also substantial, presenting the chance to join his coach, Boris Becker, and John McEnroe on three Wimbledon titles, joint fourth on the Open-era list. And it would take him clear of Andre Agassi, Jimmy Connors and Ivan Lendl into fifth place outright in the Open-era list of Grand Slam winners, further cementing his legacy as not just the third member of the Federer-Nadal era, but one of the greatest players in the history of tennis. The stakes for both players are incredibly high.
Prediction: If Federer can serve as well as he did against Murray, then he has every chance to walk away with the trophy once again, even against as good a returner as Djokovic. Key for the Serbian, who has shown signs of frustration over the past two weeks, will be managing to extend the points and the match in order to use his greater fitness to his advantage, something Murray was just unable to do, when letting the first two sets slip away at the death. The longer the match goes, the more it favors Djokovic. And while not at his absolute best so far, he may just be able to raise his game for the occasion and keep Federer close enough to turn it into a physical matchup in which, for the second year running, he may just prevail.
Djokovic in five sets
Date and time: Sunday, July 12 at 9 a.m. EDT.