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Djokovic-Federer: We’ve Been Here Before

Andrew Burton

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Susan Mullane - USA TODAY Sports

We’ve been here before.

That was the one thought in my head Sunday in the early evening, as two excited spectators in the Wimbledon crowd held up a single finger — one more point!

We’ve been here before:

A first serve that arrows for the T corner, clips the net cord, then falls back. The second serve sent wide, a forehand block return, and a half volley forehand redirect to ad that lands an inch out.

We’ve been here before:

A sparkling baseline rally, a brave swinging volley to ad for a winner. A wide first serve not perfectly spotted, and a breathtaking free swing forehand cross-court return winner. The Shot. The arms out wide, the turn to the crowd – how do you like me now?

We’ve been here before.

A first serve down the T, not perfectly spotted. Forehand chip return, net attack to deuce, perfectly angled running cross court forehand pass. Deuce.

Or: T first serve, return, perfectly struck forehand winner to deuce. Deuce. Or: Body first serve, slight mishit return, forehand clips the tape, bounces out, deuce.

We’ve been here before.

If you’re a Djokovic fan or a Federer fan, you were telling yourself this in those hinge moments of the fifth set.

In those two New York semifinals of 2010 and 2011, Federer folded quickly. Sunday he battled on, clearly running on fumes from early in the fifth set. Break chances came and went.

He was on fumes, winning points on his first serve, losing them when he couldn’t get a first serve into play. Match point to his opponent; baseline rally, then a forehand shank, the ball arcing high away from the court. All the long hours – all the years – flying away with it. Defeat. Handshake.

We’d been there before.

We watched Andy Roddick break his opponent multiple times in the 2009 Wimbledon final, and have chances to lift the trophy. People would say he was the better player on the day, but that doesn’t matter in the moment. In years to come people will remember the sportsmanship in defeat, but it was a defeat. He sat in his chair, collected himself and got ready to move on.

We’d been there before.

His opponent had been there before himself, exactly one year before, in the same spot, on the same court. I saw the picture of Federer, disconsolate, on his chair after the match and was taken back to another photo taken 11 years ago.

We’ve been here before.

Peter Bodo’s description of Roger Federer, crestfallen in defeat at the end of an epic fifth set in a Wimbledon final, was “Spartan In A Cardigan.”

The biggest question in my mind is how TMF is going to react to this turn of events. Will he prove, like Bjorn Borg, to be too brittle, and too tired of the pressure of his position, to continue playing with his customary degree of desire and focus? Or will he find a way to draw emotional fuel from this loss for the final phase of his career, with such enormous honors at stake? I don’t think there’s any question but that it will be the latter; the Borg retirement was unique (at least in men’s tennis). But I have two caveats: first, he must be willing to go three, four, five majors without winning, and still retain the drive and confidence needed to bag his next one. Second, he has to be prepared to face a relentless barrage of questions about these issues.

This was written in July of 2008, and I’m writing this in July of 2019. Eleven years later, “the final phase of Roger Federer’s career” has actually been a pretty interesting one, encompassing the two losses to Novak in New York, and a few wins along the way. For me, Sunday hurt like hell. I try to write about tennis matches and careers as objectively as I can, but I’m a fan first – but it wasn’t even the worst final defeat from two match points up.

We’ve been here before.

I might be in a minority of one, but the 2008 Wimbledon final wasn’t the best match I saw Nadal and Federer play. For me, Rome 2006 has that honor: I’ve never seen Federer play better before or since, and he lost the match from two match points up. I had difficulty sleeping for days afterward replaying those points in my head.

But the actual player likely put it behind him two hours after it happened, and moved on, to Roland Garros, Wimbledon, to Toronto and Cincinnati, to New York, Tokyo, Madrid and Shanghai.

He won six of those eight events and made the final in a seventh. I’d say the lad moved on from Rome.

As fans we can luxuriate in what might have beens, holding it in and nurturing anger and resentment. Or we can let it go.

The future isn’t written in stone; it rhymes but it doesn’t repeat. In July of 2008 Pete Bodo counseled Federer that “he must be willing to go three, four, five majors without winning, and still retain the drive and confidence needed to bag his next one.” In fact, Federer would win the next major in New York, and three of the next five after that.

Sometimes it is the final out: Andy Roddick didn’t play in another major final after falling 16-14 in set 5 that July day in 2009. At other times, what looks like the last chance is the last but ten. The future isn’t written, but one thing is very likely:

We’ll be here again.

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