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Novak Djokovic triumphs in five-set thriller

Novak Djokovic kisses the Gentlemen's Singles Trophy while the crowd below watch
by Kate Battersby
Sunday 6 July 2014

Good things come in threes, so they say. Come the autumn, Novak Djokovic will become a father for the first time; in the middle of next week, if rumour is to be believed, he will marry his long-time sweetheart Jelena Ristic, the mother of his future child; and on Sunday on the Centre Court at Wimbledon, he beat Roger Federer in a truly thrilling final 6-7(7), 6-4, 7-6(4), 5-7, 6-4 in three hours and 56 minutes, thus regaining the world No.1 spot for the first time since September last year.

It has been a long 18 months for the Serb since he collected his sixth Slam title in Australia. In three major finals since then, he has been obliged to arrange his features into the expression of the graceful runner-up, and he has met this most difficult of tests with a poise and courtesy he cannot possibly have felt in the moments it was demanded of him. Kudos to him. But on this July afternoon at Wimbledon, by his own magnificent efforts, he snapped the losing habit – and as sometimes happens at the very greatest of moments, there was no leap of joy, no howl of victory. It was only after the obligatory handshakes that his knees gave way.

To describe this final as riveting is to sell it a long way short. We knew beforehand that it would be intense. But there must be some official IBM match statistic somewhere to prove that the near-15,000 spectators on the Centre Court and goodness knows how many millions at home were entirely shorn of all fingernails at the conclusion, such was the nervous chewing of digits inspired by the extraordinary exploits on court.

There was no more extraordinary moment than when Federer saved a Championship point at 4-5 in the fourth set. With Djokovic a heartbeat from his seventh Slam, the Swiss delivered what he believed to be an ace. The line judge called it out; Federer summoned Hawk-Eye and was proven correct.

A few minutes earlier he had been 2-5 down, looking like a tired man running out of ideas, but it turned out to be a cunning disguise. With the aid of that pivotal challenge, he plundered five games on the bounce to take the match into the decider, and in those moments it seemed that destiny must be waiting for him. He would indeed become the oldest Wimbledon champion at 32 years 332 days; he would collect an historic eighth Wimbledon and 18th Grand Slam. It wasn’t to be.

The laurels were richly earned by Djokovic: for keeping his head after losing that Championship point and for seeing the match go into a decider when all the momentum had seemed to be with him. In that last set he battled all kinds of demons – he needed the trainer for the second occasion in the match, this time to attend to his right knee in a medical time-out (previously it was his left ankle); he fended off a break point at 3-3 and then saw Federer save a whole clutch of break points himself. And all the while the crowd, forgivably, made no secret that their hearts were with the Swiss. Djokovic will not care.

From the outset the intensity level was extraordinary. Federer was happy to come to the net, not so much intent on serve and volley as serve and attack. The quality of Djokovic’s return was, as always, startling. The well-worn theory that Federer needed to keep the points short was blown away as the two went at it hammer and tongs, all the way to the breaker. Federer saved two set points before an unreturned serve gave him a chance of his own, and a Djokovic backhand went into the net.

The Serb set about changing the course of the match, trying to think his way out of the problem – concentrating so hard on the ball that for the first time of many he fell heavily on the dusty baseline, just as he had in his semi-final against Grigor Dimitrov. He needed attention from the trainer but by then a fabulous backhand pass had already given him the break for 2-1. He was tested with a long game to hold for 3-1, but it would be enough.

There was no telling which way the match would go. In the third, once again there was only one way to settle it, with a shootout. Federer opened with his fastest ace of the tournament at 127mph, one of 29 he would deliver in total. But Djokovic was racking up the passing winners, and then Federer sent a forehand wide for 3-5 when he had the court in his sights. It proved pivotal.

Into the fourth, with all the momentum stacking up behind the Serb. At 1-2 Federer was looking weary. He save three break points but Djokovic wore him down with a fourth, and Federer sent a forehand long for 1-3. Unexpectedly he broke back, literally jumping for joy as the crowd screeched their approval. But he couldn’t make it stick and it was three breaks in a row. As Djokovic neared 5-2, he urged the crowd to make more noise in appreciation of him, and they obliged. But it was nothing compared with their bellow of approval when Federer clobbered five straight games to take the match into the decider.

They wanted the Federer fairytale, but Djokovic was writing his own story. He had been generous in defeat long enough. As he notched up two more Championship points, he blew a kiss to the heavens in gratitude for another chance. One of those two did go by, but at the third opportunity Federer dropped a backhand in the net, and the title belonged to Djokovic.

Perhaps the Serb wanted to dance for joy, and maybe inside he was. Yet all he could manage was a peaceful smile. The journey is a long one, for those who seek Grand Slams. But the arrival is wonderful, and worth every step. Just ask Novak Djokovic.

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