Though Novak Djokovic is the youngest member of the “Big Three”—the trio of Roger Federer, Rafael Nadal, and Djokovic that has reigned supreme over men’s tennis for the past decade—it often feels like he’s the overlooked middle child of the bunch. Both Federer and Nadal are superstars beloved for the sporting ideals their respective games epitomize: the elegance and precision of Federer’s classic style of attacking tennis, the grit and ferocity of Nadal’s power-baseline game. Djokovic, who today defeated Federer in the longest men’s singles final ever played at Wimbledon, 7–6 (5), 1–6, 7–6 (4), 4–6, 13–12 (3), has never elicited that same kind of adulation. With this victory, however, Djokovic added fuel to the idea that he’s the greatest player of this generation.
Throughout the match, the crowd rooted most strongly for Federer. The obvious lack of support didn’t bother Djokovic to the same degree it did during his semifinal match against the Spanish journeyman Roberto Bautista Agut, when Djokovic took to mocking the audience for backing the underdog. Early in today’s final, the pro-Federer crowd began cheering so loudly for the Swiss that the ESPN commentator Chris Fowler noted the environment was becoming unfair to Djokovic. In the fifth set, Djokovic saved a break point with a dramatic overhead smash. The crowd barely reacted, clearly disappointed that Federer had failed to convert his break opportunity, and Djokovic let a wry smile slip over his face, as if to acknowledge that, no matter how well he played, he knew he wouldn’t finish the day as the fan favorite.
The lack of love Djokovic receives from crowds is, in many respects, perplexing. He does so many things on a tennis court as well as, if not better than, any player in the history of the men’s game. He’s been referred to as one of the best returners ever. He’s a brilliant ball striker with a lethal down-the-line backhand and a crosscourt forehand that he consistently sends across the net with pace and at extremely acute angles. Throughout his career, he’s worked hard to increase his stamina, mastering a grueling fitness regimen. He’s the rare player without an identifiable weakness.
Djokovic’s performance today suggests that the Serb’s foremost quality is the mental toughness he exhibits in big moments. At 8–7 in the fifth set, Federer held championship points on his serve. Djokovic erased both of them and broke Federer to pull even. The eventual champion never lost his nerve on a day when the Swiss served exceptionally well and handled Djokovic’s deep returns with aplomb. Djokovic saved his best for when it mattered most, winning the three tiebreaks the two men played. He showed great equanimity in the pressure-packed moments, while Federer’s level dipped when things got tight.
The match was a classic in the sense that it went the distance and was the first final in Wimbledon history to feature a fifth-set tiebreaker. But it was far from the best contest these two men have treated fans to over the years. When the members of the Big Three meet at major tournaments, the resulting matches are often drama-saturated, shot-making extravaganzas—the sporting equivalent of a pair of virtuosic saxophonists trying to out-solo each other inside a packed club for hours at a time. This final reached that fever pitch only on occasion; there were long stretches when the men behaved like two hyper-competent IRS agents seeing who could audit more tax returns on an ordinary business day. Neither athlete showed much emotion; neither played spectacular tennis for long stretches. But the match will be remembered for the way Djokovic overcame Federer on a day when a win by the 37-year old Swiss would’ve been interpreted as the perfect storybook ending to the tournament—and as a signature accomplishment for one of the world’s most popular athletes.
Djokovic’s triumph adds credibility to the argument that he is the greatest tennis player of all time. While he still trails Federer and Nadal in terms of the most Grand Slam singles titles won, he has beaten Federer in all three finals the two men have played at Wimbledon, which is Federer’s best tournament. Djokovic is also one of two men to have beaten Nadal at the French Open, the major that the Spaniard has won a record 12 times. Djokovic’s ability to defeat his top rivals on their favorite surfaces speaks to the prodigious talent he possesses, and should be a factor when future pundits try to determine who from this marvelous generation of men’s tennis players should come out on top.
For his part, Federer played another classic Wimbledon final and came up just short. Memories of his 2008 loss to Nadal permeated this fortnight in part because the two men met again in the semifinal and produced another tantalizing contest. Another loss in a marathon final against a significant rival will, however, raise concerns about Federer’s mental toughness in the Grand Slam matches that matter most. Federer is the elder statesman on the men’s tour, and the number of opportunities he has to win Grand Slams is dwindling fast.
Djokovic leaves Wimbledon as not only the No. 1 ranked player in the world but also the winner of two of three Grand Slam events played this year and four of the past five. He absolutely dismantled Nadal in the finals of the 2019 Australian Open and delivered an impressive victory today. Despite the undeniable skill of his Big Three peers, Djokovic is playing the best tennis. He may never win the affection of the crowds who attend his Grand Slam matches, but he certainly deserves their respect.