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2019 feels a lot like 2015 for Novak Djokovic

Matt Zemek

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Susan Mullane - USA TODAY Sports

It is true that this Wimbledon, on a broader level, owns a lot of similarities with the 2014 tournament, but the 2019 Wimbledon men’s final on Sunday owns a more specific resemblance to the 2015 men’s final.

First, let’s make the basic comparison between 2019 Wimbledon and 2014 Wimbledon:

Yet, if we are to compare this 2019 men’s final — pitting Novak Djokovic against Roger Federer — to a previous Fedole final at Wimbledon, 2015 is the better and more precise comparison, not 2014.

The 2014 final was a hugely consequential match. It arguably might become progressively more consequential in the course of tennis history, depending on how events play out in the remainder of the Big 3 Era. However, as important as that 2014 final was, it is not the best comparison to 2019.

2015 is better.

In 2014, none of us knew Djokovic would become dominant again, on a scale matched (or even exceeded) by his soaring 2011 standard. We all knew it was POSSIBLE, but skepticism reigned in the early months of Boris Becker’s partnership with Djokovic. He won that 2014 five-set final against Federer, and then 2015 became a season even better than the already-towering 2011 campaign Djokovic produced.

Entering that 2015 Wimbledon final against Federer, Djokovic was “the man.” He had restored his 2011 identity as the world’s best and the stopper who halted everyone else (99 percent of the time). Even though he lost at Roland Garros to Stan Wawrinka, he was so dominant that year — including and especially against elite players — that Roland Garros felt like an unexpected hiccup more than an indication of slippage.

When Djokovic lost the 2014 Roland Garros final to Rafael Nadal, he came to Wimbledon with a cloud hovering over him: Would he figure out major finals? Would he become a terminator in big moments again?

When Djokovic lost the 2015 Roland Garros final to Wawrinka, he came to Wimbledon with a ton of pressure on his back… but not a lot of doubt. This was his tour, his turf, his competition to lose. Rafa was at low ebb back then. Federer had not beaten a Big 3 player in a five-set match in three years (Djokovic at Wimbledon in 2012). Andy Murray was a factor at the majors, but it was clear in 2015 that Djokovic was better and had more ways to win a match than Murray did.

Djokovic was the favorite going into that Wimbledon tournament.

I emphasize “tournament” because heading into the final, while Djokovic was “The Man,” Federer had made a loud statement in his semifinal.

This is where the 2015 comparison with 2019 becomes more precise — and relevant to Sunday.

Federer’s 2015 Wimbledon semifinal against Andy Murray was — one could argue — his best performance in a major semifinal. Only two matches stand on that same plane: 2011 Roland Garros against Djokovic, and 2019 Wimbledon on Friday against Rafael Nadal.

In 2015 against Murray, Federer got into the zone and stayed there. Murray played a very strong match, as well as he reasonably could have hoped to produce… and he didn’t win a single set. The match featured a 15-minute-long game at 5-4 Federer in the second set. Murray saved a bunch of break-and-set points to hold for 5-5.

Federer — as he similarly displayed against Nadal this past Friday — was able to quickly move past any temporary failure to win key games or points. He calmly regrouped after Murray’s 15-minute hold to win the second set and stay on course.

The quality of Federer’s performance — it was as good as it gets — naturally made some people feel he could stay on a high and beat Djokovic, but as things turned out, Federer had only two great sets in him on Sunday… not any more than that.

The first two sets of the 2015 final were dead even, with Djokovic and Federer splitting tiebreakers, but then Djokovic took complete control, breaking Federer early in the third and fourth sets to make what was, in the end, a relatively comfortable victory.

Recall Djokovic’s third-round win over Hubert Hurkacz at this year’s Wimbledon. The first two sets were basically even, with nothing separating either player. Then Djokovic remembered he was Djokovic in sets three and four. In the 2015 final, Djokovic did make Federer look like Hurkacz in sets three and four.

Djokovic was the empirically better player… but it was also undeniable that after playing an essentially flawless semifinal against Murray, the idea that Federer could play a full-length masterpiece again on Sunday — against a player much better than Murray — was not a reasonable expectation.

Federer being superhuman is certainly possible, but less so with age. The physical turnaround is something Fed can manage, but the mental sharpness needed to be airtight on the big points — as Federer was against Nadal in 2019 and Murray in 2015 — is not likely to emerge. It CAN — he’s Roger Federer, after all — but it isn’t likely.

Federer has eight Wimbledons and will be trying to win nine on Sunday. In the 21st century, sure, Centre Court has been his house. Yet, in this decade, Centre Court has been Djokovic’s cathedral, his sanctuary, the place where he both restores his seasons after losing at Roland Garros, and reaffirms the full measure of his greatness.

Djokovic has become such a great Wimbledon player that while Fed is playing for nine, Nole is playing for five. Given that Federer’s chances of winning future Wimbledons should decrease with advancing age, Djokovic is likely to be the favorite at the next several Wimbledons.

Would anyone be all that surprised if Djokovic wins eight pineapples at the All England Club? I know I wouldn’t.

As in 2015, Novak Djokovic enters a Wimbledon final against Roger Federer KNOWING he can win.

In 2014, he HOPED he could win, and pulled himself through. In 2015, he knew with certainty that he was the best player on the court. It is also true today, four years later. Roger Federer might have played a brilliant semifinal, but as Djokovic and Federer could both tell you, it is hard to play A-plus tennis in both a major semifinal and then a major final. One match generally requires some struggles. Djokovic is known for playing a somewhat patchy semi and then a God Mode final. He didn’t have to play his absolute best to beat Roberto Bautista Agut. He could save up for the final, when he knows he needs his A-game.

2019 feels a lot like 2015 for Novak Djokovic at Wimbledon. If Sunday’s final unfolds the way the 2015 final did, Djokovic — the clear favorite at the upcoming U.S. Open — will create a familiar feeling.

Yet, he will also create a new conversation as well. We will see if that conversation will be initiated when Sunday’s final ends.

Matt Zemek is the co-editor of Tennis With An Accent with Saqib Ali. Matt is the lead writer for the site and helps Saqib with the TWAA podcast, produced by Radio Influence at radioinfluence.com. Matt has written professionally about men's and women's tennis since 2014 for multiple outlets: Comeback Media, FanRagSports, and independently at Patreon, where he maintains a tennis site. You can reach Matt by e-mail: mzemek@hotmail.com. You can find him on Twitter at @mzemek.

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