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Novak Djokovic makes his point — the last one

Matt Zemek

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Susan Mullane - USA TODAY Sports

You, a tennis fan, are reading this article after Sunday’s Wimbledon men’s final between Novak Djokovic and Roger Federer. If you are a fan of one of the two players, you are going through a tidal wave of emotions on different sides of the sports spectrum.

If you are not a fan of either player, you might have your own very strong opinions on what just happened, but you won’t feel emotionally elated or destroyed the way the two players’ fan bases are.

Wherever you, a tennis fan, fit on this spectrum, try to step back and remember what life was like before this final began. Remember how the players had played the previous times they reached a major final. Remember how they played when they faced each other.

Try. You might not succeed, but at least try to remember.

If you can step back from this match for just a little bit, you will remember these basic details — I will make these points very generalized so that I know I’m not saying anything too controversial:

In the 2014 Wimbledon final, you will remember that Djokovic had lost his previous major final to Rafael Nadal at Roland Garros one month earlier. You will remember that Djokovic had lost his previous Wimbledon final in 2013 to Andy Murray. You will remember that Djokovic let the 2013 U.S. Open final slip away against Nadal. You will remember that Djokovic had not won a major final outside of Australia since the 2011 U.S. Open.

It was at that tournament that Djokovic saved two match points against Roger Federer’s serve: 40-15.

Entering that 2014 Wimbledon final, Djokovic was a lot like Ivan Lendl in major finals. Lendl went 8-11 in 19 major finals. He made a lot of them, but struggled to clear that last hurdle. Lendl definitely embodied the idea that you can play a great major tournament and not win it. We would think so differently about Lendl if he had gone 12-7 in those 19 major finals.

A career isn’t defined by one match, but a career is certainly shaped by a collection of matches. Fair or not, major finals are the most important matches tennis players play, for those good enough and fortunate enough to play in them. If you win them, you get remembered one way. If you lose, you get remembered another way.

Entering that 2014 Wimbledon final, Novak Djokovic was remembered one way.

Then, like a man burdened by the track record he knew he had in major finals, Djokovic — up 5-2 in the fourth set, about to beat Federer and win Wimbledon — lost the plot. Federer stormed back to take the fourth set and create a break point at 3-3, 30-40 in the fifth.

Another major final was slipping away. Djokovic could have panicked. He could have fallen off the ledge. He was that close to disaster.

At that point, Djokovic could have allowed himself to worry… but he had one more point to play.

He saved that break point, broke Federer shortly later. He won that final.

Since that 2014 Wimbledon final, Novak Djokovic played far fewer mediocre major finals: in 2015 at Roland Garros and 2016 at the U.S. Open against Stan Wawrinka. In Australia, at Roland Garros in 2016 against Andy Murray, at Wimbledon, Djokovic locked in his game and locked down his opponents. We can also note that with the benefit of hindsight, Djokovic was not whole in 2016 at the U.S. Open. Wawrinka certainly earned that win with great play, but it didn’t feel that Djokovic let a major slip away. Everything which happened over the next several months, leading into the start of 2017, made it very hard — if not impossible — to view that 2016 U.S. Open final in a particularly harsh light.

That 2014 Wimbledon final marked a true turning point for Djokovic, chiefly because it changed the way he played in major finals.

So, as you try to remember what life was like before this 2019 Wimbledon final began, remember that Djokovic had become a completely different competitor in major finals, these matches which shape careers and how we remember tennis players once they hang up the racquet.

When Djokovic won the first-set tiebreaker on this Sunday in July of 2019, what would a normal person have suspected? Be honest: Djokovic dumping serve twice in the second set was not what any normal person would have thought.

When Djokovic won the third-set tiebreaker on this Sunday in July of 2019, what would a normal person have suspected? Not for Djokovic to play more rubbish tennis and go down *5-2 in the fourth.

Through four sets, this match was exactly the inverse of what normally happens when Federer plays Djokovic or Nadal: Federer was always there in each set, while Djokovic went away in sets two and four. Usually, Federer is the more volatile player, reaching 11 on a scale of 1 to 10 at times but then dipping to a 6, while Djokovic and Nadal stay at 8.5 to 9 all the way.

This was role reversal.

Djokovic had not played a Wimbledon final like this since……. yep, you guessed it: 2014. It was as though the circle of life returned to five years ago, with Djokovic having this match in his grasp and then relenting.

Federer was the more consistent player, but it’s not as though Federer established anything close to the standard he set against Rafael Nadal on Friday. Federer barely missed anything in that match except for a flood of errors in a four-game span to end the second set. Other than those four games, he was essentially flawless. The physical challenge of playing the Big 3 back to back is daunting, but the MENTAL challenge is more daunting. Federer was likely to go through a lot of ups and downs in this match, and he did… and yet he was the far steadier player through four sets.

Hardly anything about the past five years of men’s tennis indicated that Novak Djokovic was going to play four mediocre sets, or then play a loose game at 4-2 in the fifth when it seemed that Federer was losing steam. This was back to 2014, with Djokovic in the curious mental territory which we just haven’t seen very much.

Let us underscore that last point… and note that when Djokovic found a way to win the last point in that 2014 final, the way we thought about him began to change.

Most importantly, the way HE — Novak Djokovic — thought about himself changed.

2019 against Federer brought Djokovic back to that place: part of the past, but rarely a part of the past five years.

Once again, Djokovic won the last point… just as in the 2011 U.S. Open, and just as in the 2010 U.S. Open semifinals, one year earlier, when he also saved two match points against Federer.

This, though, was the first time in a major final. This was also the first time at Wimbledon that Djokovic had won the last point against Federer after being in danger of losing the last point.

The end result was the same: Djokovic winning the last point.

I was mentally prepared, as a sportswriter, to write about a majestic and dominant Djokovic performance on Sunday. I was prepared to write about how Djokovic will end up winning the most majors — and yes, I still think he will; I can write that sentence right now. Yet, I was prepared to write about Djokovic eventually winning the most majors because of his dominance. I was not expecting this kind of performance through four sets. If you did, I am skeptical that you are being honest.

One thing I always say about sportswriting and sports commentary is that the events tell the story. As a writer and commentator, I don’t make up the script. I comment on the script the athletes just wrote on Centre Court. I don’t get to say certain things after a major final or any other match if the ACTUAL EVENTS warrant a different line of thought or argumentation.

So, whereas BEFORE the match, I was prepared to write about Djokovic’s dominance, and how he had a path toward the GOAT championship by continuing to dominate the tour, this 2019 final changed things — not in that Djokovic’s path toward GOAT-hood doesn’t exist, but in the WAY Djokovic’s possible ascension will be remembered.

Federer, Djokovic, Rafael Nadal — they have all had their epic seasons, their runs of supreme dominance, their empire-like reigns, and their struggles. Yet, through all of these twists and turns over more than a decade, they have met on the mountaintop several times. In these several times — in major finals, also semifinals — lie the points of differentiation among their three careers.

After this match, what are we left with? We are left with the reality that when a huge, huge match with enormous historical implications sat right on the razor’s edge in the Big 3 era, Novak Djokovic — in 2011, January of 2012, and then continuing with the 2014 Wimbledon final — has won it more than Federer and Nadal have.

2011 U.S. Open semis = major title

2012 Australian Open final = major title

2014 Wimbledon final = major title

2018 Wimbledon semis = major title

2019 Wimbledon final = major title

In that list of five matches above, Novak Djokovic won three after facing multiple match points. He won another after being a break down in the fifth (2012 Australian, Nadal). He won the other after facing two break points at 7-7, 15-40, in a fifth set (2018 Wimbledon, Nadal).

You can do the very simple math: one handful of points changed the history books.

The last point Federer didn’t win. The last point Djokovic won.

When we make arguments about who is the greatest tennis player of all time, we — as fans or as commentators — usually make them based on major titles, or wins, or Masters titles, or records on surfaces, or records versus top-10 players, or various other categories.

Before Sunday’s Wimbledon final, I was prepared to say that Djokovic was on track to become the most successful major-tournament tennis player of all time because he so consistently showed that he was clearly the better player than his Big 3 peers across all three surfaces. That’s the story I THOUGHT I was going to write.

Yet, the events from Sunday’s final against Roger Federer won’t allow me to write that story.

The end result — Novak Djokovic being likely to win more majors than Federer or Nadal, and thereby more than any other man when our lifetimes end 70 years from now — will not have come from dominance, at least not primarily.

It will have come from winning the last point more often in matches where the last point easily could have been won by the other player.

Novak Djokovic as the GOAT? I would not argue with you.

That he would win that distinction by one point, though, underscores how close and insoluble the debate really is… and how the smallest margins carry such an enormous amount of weight in reshaping our judgments, our memories, and the actual historical record.

That is the last point to make about a column based substantially on…

the last point.

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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