Novak Djokovic saved two championship points to down Roger Federer and win his fifth Wimbledon title in a pulsating five-set thriller – the longest final in the tournament’s history and the first ever deciding-set tiebreak at 12-12 in singles.
The world No. 1 looked below par for large portions of a tense final but – as he’s done so often in his career – stepped up when it really mattered in a 7-6 (7-5) 1-6 7-6 (7-4) 4-6 13-12 (7-3) win after four hours and 57 minutes to deny Federer a joint-record ninth crown in the most dramatic possible fashion.
A 12-12 fifth set tiebreak was introduced this year after the six-and-a-half hour semi-final match between Kevin Anderson and John Isner in 2018 disrupted finals weekend, but it wasn’t until this year’s final that we first saw it come into play at The Championships.
The match replaced Rafael Nadal’s famous win over Federer in the 2008 final as the longest final in Wimbledon’s history. The last set lasted 122 minutes.
A decade on from his 16-14 five-set win over Andy Roddick, Federer was not only chasing Martina Navratilova’s nine-title haul.
The 37-year-old could have become the oldest player in the Open Era to win a men’s singles Grand Slam.
But Djokovic, who has now won four of the past five Grand Slams had other ideas, as he claimed his 16th major title and pocketed £2,350,000.
It may prove rather significant in the battle to end their respective careers as the greatest of all time (GOAT). Djokovic, 32, moved to within four titles of Federer’s Slam haul, with plenty of years left in the tank.
Federer – who won at least six games in each of the five sets – may not get a better chance to win a 21st Slam. Djokovic was far from his best level, while the Swiss played a terrific match. It spoke volumes that Djokovic took a two sets to one lead despite not creating a single break point.
But the world No. 3 – who has never beaten Nadal, who he defeated in the semi-finals, and Djokovic in the same Grand Slam – has now lost all nine of the Slam finals when falling 2-1 down, with Djokovic needing a tense fifth to see it out.
While the tension remained a constant, it was tough to map the peaks and troughs of the encounter. A high-level first set pinched by Djokovic was followed by one of the worst the Serb has ever played at Wimbledon.
A curious third, with both somewhat passive on return was captured by Djokovic – who saved a set point – and just when it looked as if he was taking control, Federer hit back to force a decider. Djokovic – who joins Federer, Nadal, Ken Rosewall and Rod Laver as the most decorated men with four titles in their 30s – seized control of the decider with an early break but was pegged back.
However, he showed true mental strength to save two match points, the second with a sublime passing shot, before downing the Swiss in a breaker.
One of the more tediously drawn out narratives in recent years has been the attempts to quantify how much – if at all – Djokovic is loved by the Wimbledon crowd.
Upon arrival, both were greeted warmly before shouts of ‘Come on, Roger’ rained down on Centre Court. Federer has long been the darling of the British crowd and his first ace of the match – on the first point – was greeted with rapturous applause.
It was somewhat more muted when Djokovic won the first serious exchange of the contest, sending a forehand winner beyond the Swiss after a meaty exchange in the third game, with a clear fan favourite emerging.
In the fourth game, Djokovic saved the first break point of the match. Federer peppered the Serb with sliced backhands but failed to convert as he missed a forehand.
From there, the quality continued to rise. Federer’s net play was exquisite but Djokovic continued to fend off his aggressive charges, coutering with supreme precision.
At 0-30, 4-5, Djokovic looked set to crack with Federer pressing relentlessly, but he served magnificently under pressure and ultimately a tiebreak was required to separate them.
Federer shanked a forehand long with Djokovic stranded at the net but the early mini-break was recovered with a sumptuous backhand winner down the line to level things at 3-3.
A weak approach from Djokovic left him a sitting duck for Federer to pass on his way to a 5-3 lead but he failed to win another point in the breaker, with a shanked backhand putting Djokovic ahead.
Federer responded well. He wrong-footed the Serb, leaving him splayed on the turf, to set up two break points before a forehand miss from the world No. 1 handed his opponent the advantage.
It was a curiously loose game from the top seed and it soon went from bad to worse as he fell 3-0 down following a clean forehand winner from his opponent.
Although he got on the board, he meekly surrendered his lead with a double fault to be broken to love as Federer levelled.
The 32-year-old sulked off court but didn’t return with much additional verve, though Federer’s level dropped in a flat fourth set.
Neither threatened to break in the first nine games, with Djokovic’s struggles on return particularly perplexing given the high level he normally operates at.
At 15-30 the crowd noise rose, leaving Djokovic waiting for the support for his opponent subside. An unreturned serve soon silenced them, but the Centre Court roar returned with Federer setting up set point with the most outrageous of half-volleys at the two-hour mark.
Though his usually reliable return was off colour, Djokovic’s serve kept him in the set.
Another unreturned stroke got him out of trouble and he held for 5-5. Djokovic let his first signs of serious frustration show a game later, flailing his arms and berating his box as Federer held to love.
He was soon smiling, though, as a couple of shanked backhands from Federer handed him an early advantage in the second breaker of the match.
Another lung-busting exchange was won by the Serb to move 5-1 up and he pumped his fist to the crowd. It looked somewhat premature as Federer clawed his way back to 4-5, but the Serb got over the line, taking a 2-1 lead despite not creating a break point.
Federer was far from done. As Djokovic looked in the ascendancy, a crucial challenge, with the Serb going narrowly long, handed him two break points.
He converted and took a 3-2 lead in the fourth – a lead that was met with pure delight from the British faithful. More jubilation followed as Federer secured a double break and a 5-2 lead. Djokovic crafted his first break point of the match after two hours and 47 minutes – which was saved after the rally of the match – and three minutes later he broke to reduce the deficit.
A drive volley saw Federer get over the line to force a fifth as the match moved into its fourth hour – he had lost all three of his previous five-setters with the Serb.
It was the second time in the past 10 years the Wimbledon final went the distance – with Djokovic’s 2014 win also going five – and Federer was the first to defend break points, with his opponent ramping up the pressure.
Djokovic will be frustrated by the backhand return he sent long at 15-40 but there was little he could do by the one-two-punch and ace that followed on his next chances.
A fourth was missed two games later but a ruthless backhand pass converted his fifth opportunity. Federer immediately hit back.
Although he tamely sent a forehand long on a first break point chance, a Djokovic error allowed him to convert the second just beyond the three-and-a-half-hour mark. Djokovic channelled his inner Boris Becker with a dive volley to avoid facing two break points at 5-5 before enquiring with umpire Damian Steiner at what stage a tiebreak is in the newly-formatted fifth set, thinking it was 10-10 rather than 12-12.
It was Federer who struck next. He stretched for a wide serve on break point and then produced a magical passing shot to take an 8-7 lead. But Djokovic was not to be beaten.
He saved two match points to claw his way back to 8-8. In a remarkable 23rd game in the final set, Djokovic saw two challenges go against him and was booed by the increasingly partisan Centre Court crowd for his troubles.
Moments later, he was handed a code violation for hitting an on-court microphone with his racquet. But it was he who had the last laugh as he secured a third tiebreak win of the match.