LONDON -- Novak Djokovic and Roger Federer aren't playing for just the Wimbledon title when the two take Centre Court for the final on Sunday. While tactics and execution will obviously play a big part, the mental aspect of the match will be the most compelling.
If Djokovic wins, he'll take over the No. 1 ranking, and if Federer wins, he'll not only become the oldest man to hoist the trophy at the All England Club in the Open Era, but he'll also move to second on the list of all time Grand Slam winners in the Open Era, tying Martina Navratilova and Chris Evert with 18.
But while tactics and execution will obviously play a big part, the mental aspect of the match will be the most compelling.
This will be the 35th career match between Djokovic and Federer, and the 12th time they've faced off at a Grand Slam. But despite their track record, it's only the second time they've met in a Slam final (Federer topped Djokovic in straight sets to win the 2007 U.S. Open). Federer leads their overall head to head record 18-16, but Djokovic has been closing the gap as of late, winning four of their last six clashes.
However the question remains whether Djokovic, playing in yet another Grand Slam final, can avoid the mental lapses that have doomed him over the last year. He has lost three-straight Slam finals, coming in second best to Rafael Nadal at the U.S. Open and French Open, and losing in straight sets to Andy Murray last year at Wimbledon.
"I should have won few matches that I lost in finals of Grand Slams in last couple years," he said. "But it's an experience. It's a learning process. It's understanding, identifying where the problem is, pushing for it, working on it. It's mental in the end of the day."
Those lapses have been present over the fortnight too. In his semifinal against Grigor Dimitrov, he led by a set and a break, but then lost five straight games to lose the set. He then needed tiebreakers to win the final two sets and the match. However, Dimitrov's all-court game, which is similar to Federer's, gave Djokovic a look at what to expect against the Swiss, whose defense rates a just below Dimitrov's.
"Most of the matches we play against each other went the distance," Djokovic said. "So I'm going to be, of course, physically ready and fit to go the distance this time. Of course, there is plenty of motivation from my side to win this Grand Slam final after losing last three out of four."
Federer comes into this final with something of a leg up over Djokovic. He is 17-7 in Grand Slam finals (Djokovic is 6-7). He has lost just one set in six matches. He's spent nearly five fewer hours on court than Djokovic. His serve has been firing for him all tournament. He's been broken just once in the tournament. As a result, he hasn't been tested much.
His trickiest match came in the quarterfinals against No. 5 Stan Wawrinka, who was playing his third straight day in a row. Physically and mentally taxed by that effort, Wawrinka was still able to win a set before Federer rolled to a 3-6, 7-6 (5), 6-4, 6-4 victory. Playing Djokovic will be a big step up in quality and Federer will have to be able to up his level against one of the best returners in the game.
"He has a wonderful way of either redirecting or taking the ball early, taking pace from the opponent, even generating some of his own," Federer said. "So I think that's what makes him so hard to play. There's not really a safe place you can play into. Novak can hurt you down the line or cross‑court on both sides."
The two have played three times this season, with Federer winning twice. One of those wins occurred on clay when Djokovic was injured, but the more telling one, and the one Federer will look back to, is his 3-6, 6-3, 6-2 at the Dubai Championships in February. In Dubai, Federer was able to win over 60 percent of his second serve points. It dipped down slightly to 57 percent in Indian Wells. The margins are slim when these two play, and the serve has always been critical in their matches.
"I think for me it's really important to stay aggressive against him," Federer said. "And especially here at Wimbledon it's more simple how we need to play against each other. It's not like on a slow court where you can maybe maneuver the other guy around so much. I think on grass it's a bit more straightforward and I think we're both aware of that."
Federer's already secured the No. 3 ranking on Monday, moving back to his long-held position as the No. 1 Swiss ahead of Stan Wawrinka. Djokovic is simply trying to avoid being second-best yet again.
Prediction: Federer in four sets.