WIMBLEDON, England — Sometimes you play brilliant tennis. You impose your will and you control the match and you make it abundantly clear that you are the best player on the court.
Other times, you fight. You claw. You sleep in the woods and eat worms and save two match points on the other guy's serve. You simply find a way.
This was the latter. Novak Djokovic didn't play his best tennis. Heck, Roger Federer might have been the better player on the day. But the world No. 1 dug deepest when it mattered most and edged Federer 7-6, 1-6, 7-6, 4-6, 13-12 (3) to win his fifth Wimbledon and 16th Grand Slam title.
He becomes the first man since 2004 to win a Grand Slam final after being down match point, and the first man to do so at Wimbledon in 71 years.
"I never stopped believing even though I was very close to losing," Djokovic said after the match.
"He was the better player for most of the match. I just fought hard and found a way."
No matter the margin, no matter how it comes, a win is a win. And they all look the same in the record book.
Ah, yes, the record book. Any time two of the Big 3 face off in a final, the match does not exist in a vacuum. They are not simply battling for the trophy in the corner; they are elbowing for position in the GOAT debate. Despite the weighty circumstances, this match managed to exceed all expectations. There was a two-major swing that hung in the balance here—if Federer wins, he pushes his lead over Djokovic to 21-15. Instead, Djokovic is now just four behind Federer's all-time mark. And that says nothing of Rafael Nadal, who sits perfectly between the two with 18 Slams of his own.
As a testament to how many dimensions these two have in their games, there was very little momentum in the match today. Or, at least, whatever momentum existed did not last long. It was Federer who played better in the crucial first set, yet he lost it. Then, just when you thought his moment had passed, he broke Djokovic three times and dominated the second tilt, winning it 6-1. Again, Federer had more chances in the third—he didn't face a break point until deep in the fourth set—and again, Djokovic stole it in a tiebreaker. The see-saw continued in the fourth, with Fed building a multiple-break lead before closing it out 6-4.
From there, it was just a war. Djokovic got his nose in front in the fifth with an early break before Federer broke right back. As both men traded holds, you got the sense that the match would become the first Wimbledon match to ever be decided by a final-set tiebreaker ... until Federer broke at 8-7 and served for the match. He hit back-to-back service winners to build a 40-15 lead in that game. That's when Djokovic passed the ultimate gut check, hitting a terrific return to erase the first match point then summoning a clutch forehand passing shot—off a poor approach from Federer, it should be noted—en route to a break back.
Then, eight consecutive holds. Because no sport does irony like tennis does irony, the first 12-12 tiebreaker of the tournament came in the very last match of the tournament. For as even as the match was during conventional games, Djokovic was clearly superior in the tiebreakers—he won them by a combined score of 21-12. He was fresh, consistent and smart as ever in the decisive one, seizing an early lead and staying aggressive on his serve. On his first match point, Djokovic pounded another return right to Federer's feet and Federer could not cope. And just like that, the paradigm in the GOAT debate shifted.
"It was long. It had everything," Federer said. "I thought we played some great tennis. So, in a way, I have to be very happy with my performance as well."
Despite the characteristic grace with which he handled this loss—there were no tears, no anger, none of that—this is absolutely a crushing defeat for Federer. He turns 38 in a couple weeks and knows his window to add to his major haul is shrinking. It should be noted that after the 2008 final, when he lost to Nadal in what seemed at the time like a changing of the guard, he won the very next Grand Slam. There is no reason he can't replicate that comeback in New York, but he will have to deal with knowing he had this match, and all the historical implications that come with it, on his racquet.
That he was this close, at this age, against a player like Novak Djokovic, is remarkable. After the match, he spoke about wanting to inspire other 37-year-olds to believe that they, too, are not too old. He might want to be careful about who hears that message, though.
"Roger said that he hopes he gives other people a chance to believe they can do it when they're 37," Djokovic said. "I'm one of them."