Friday 23 August 2019

Eamonn Sweeney: 'Djokovic may surpass Federer's Grand Slam haul, but he'll never be loved in the same way'

Novak Djokovic. Photo: Mike Egerton/PA Wire
Novak Djokovic. Photo: Mike Egerton/PA Wire
Eamonn Sweeney

Eamonn Sweeney

There was a special quality about the cheering which erupted at Centre Court when Roger Federer earned two match points in the men's singles final. You could hear not just excitement and joy but also a kind of awed disbelief that the greatest player of all-time was about to secure his greatest ever victory.

Then Novak Djokovic survived both match points and when he won the game to level at 8-8 in the fifth set you sensed Federer's chance had gone. It had but, though fatigue was already forcing the 37-year-old to try and keep the rallies short, he kept it going for another eight games until finally yielding in the tie-break which new rules ordain must be played at 12-12 in the fifth set.

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But for those rules who knows how long it would have lasted? As it was, the final took four hours and 57 minutes to make it the longest in Wimbledon history. It seemed slightly unfair that Djokovic's three sets had all been won in tie-breaks.

Everything about Djokovic seems kind of unfair. A chess Grand Master defeated by the computer Big Blue was asked what kind of experience it had been. "It's like a wall coming at you," he said. Djokovic is the human version of that wall, a performer whose remorselessness and inexorability are unique in world sport.

His ability to keep coming is founded on an apparently invincible self-belief. He played those two match points no differently than he'd played any of the 420 other points. Federer won more of those points than Djokovic, he hit 25 aces to the Serbian's 10 and 94 winners to his 54.

At times the momentum seemed to have swung decisively in Federer's favour, but Djokovic seems not to believe in the concept of momentum. There is just this point and the next one and the one after that to be won. Staring into the abyss, he won four of them in a row and went on from there. It was the first time in 71 years that a player won a Wimbledon final after being match point down.

At 32, Djokovic has 16 Grand Slam wins to Federer's 20 and may well overhaul him. Yet he will never be loved in the same way as the man he beat last Sunday. Federer's achievement of restoring the primacy of skill in a sport which had become increasingly, and tediously, dominated by strength and power is a pivotal one in the history of tennis.

Gratitude for that achievement is ever present in the crowd's applause. The coda to his career, three titles in the last three years after he'd drawn a blank for the previous five, is an unexpected and magnificent bonus. Watching him now, you realise more than ever that his like will not be here again.

The legacy of Serena Williams will be a more ambiguous one. Those Therapeutic Use Exemptions, the griping about being dope tested and above all her temper tantrums in last year's US Open final cannot but tarnish her career.

In fairness to Williams, she did apologise, sort of, last week for that meltdown in the defeat by Naomi Osaka. Which makes those who said at the time that there was nothing to apologise for and who levelled accusations of racism and sexism against umpire Carlos Ramos look very silly indeed.

Nevertheless Williams will, like Federer, leave a big hole in the sport when she goes. She's just seven weeks younger than her fellow great and time is running out for her to equal Margaret Court's all-time singles record. It looked as if everything was falling for her at a championship where only three of the top 16 seeds got beyond the fourth round.

Williams, who might have lost her own second round match to the 18-year-old Slovakian Kaja Juvan, looked her old dominant self when pulverising Czech veteran Barbora Strycova in the semi-final. That match lasted only 59 minutes yet that was seven less than Simona Halep needed to beat Williams in the final.

This decider was as remarkable in its way as the men's because Halep played tennis of a platonic perfection which has rarely been witnessed at centre court. The three unforced errors she committed are the least ever in a grand slam singles final. The Romanian made tennis look both the easiest and the most beautiful game in the world.

Wimbledon spoils us. This year more than ever.

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