LONDON >> A game away from a third Wimbledon championship and ninth Grand Slam title, Novak Djokovic sized up a 108 mph serve from none other than Roger Federer and stretched to smack a cross-court forehand return winner.
Two points later, Djokovic again took the measure of a serve from Federer, this one at 123 mph, and delivered a down-the-line backhand for another return winner. After this one, Djokovic bellowed.
“I roared because I felt like that’s the moment,” Djokovic would say later. “Now is the time for me to close this match out.”
One forehand winner later, he did. For the second year in a row, Djokovic solved Federer’s superb serve in the final at the All England Club. And for the second year in a row, Federer’s bid for a record eighth championship at the grass-court tournament ended with a defeat against Djokovic.
This time, the match was even as can be through two sets, before the No. 1-seeded Djokovic grabbed ahold of it and wouldn’t let go, beating No. 2 Federer 7-6 (1), 6-7 (10), 6-4, 6-3 Sunday thanks to brilliant returning.
“It feels, obviously, good when you make a return winner out of Roger’s serve on the grass,” Djokovic said, “but it doesn’t happen too often.”
Over the past three seasons, Federer has reached two Grand Slam finals — both at Wimbledon, both against Djokovic, both losses.
“You sort of walk away empty-handed. For me, a finalist trophy is not the same,” a grim-faced Federer said. “Everybody knows that.”
At Wimbledon in 2014, Federer won 88 of 89 service games through the semifinals, then was broken four times by Djokovic during the five-set final.
This fortnight, Federer won 89 of 90 service games entering the final, then again was broken four times.
“It takes a little bit of everything: recognizing the moment, having the good intuition, following your instincts of where the serve is going to go, being in the right balance,” Djokovic said. “I mean, it’s not that easy, especially with Roger’s precision and accuracy.”
Djokovic’s serve was stout, too: He saved six of seven break points. On a windy afternoon, Federer was simply not the same height-of-his-powers player who defeated Andy Murray in the semifinals. Pressured by Djokovic’s body-twisting ability to extend points, Federer committed 35 unforced errors; Djokovic made 16.
Federer and Djokovic have played 40 times; each has won 20.
“Novak played not only great today,” said Federer, 33, the oldest Wimbledon finalist since 1974, “but the whole two weeks, plus the whole year, plus last year, plus the year before that.”
Federer might very well be the greatest of all time, as some say, but right now, the best in the men’s game is Djokovic.
He won the Australian Open in January, then was the runner-up at the French Open last month, denying him a career Grand Slam. Go further back, and Djokovic has reached 15 of the past 20 major finals, winning eight.
Still, most spectators were pulling for Federer. So quiet between points that pre-serve ball bounces could be heard, the crowd voiced a collective “awwwww” of lament after a fault by Federer or a mid-point “ooooh” of excitement when he conjured up something exquisite.
“More or less, anywhere I play against Roger, it’s the same,” said Djokovic, who barked at some fans late in the fourth set.
Federer rued letting the opening set get away. Twice, he held a set point and failed to convert. The tiebreaker ended flatly on Federer’s double-fault, part of a run in which Djokovic took 14 of 15 points.
“For me to win this match,” Federer said, “I probably had to win the first set.”
He regrouped, staving off seven set points in the second and taking that tiebreaker.
So 110 minutes in, they were tied. Here’s how close it was: In the first set, each man won 37 points; in the second set, each won 51.
At the changeover, Djokovic yelled at himself. Maybe it helped, because his second break gave him a 2-1 edge in the third, and he finished that set off quickly following a 20-minute rain delay. Federer failed to put up much resistance in the fourth, getting broken twice more.
Soon enough, Djokovic was crouching down to pluck a few blades of Centre Court grass and slide them in his mouth.
He equaled his coach, Boris Becker, with three trophies at Wimbledon. Add five Australian Opens and one U.S. Open, and his nine major titles push him ahead of folks such as Andre Agassi, Jimmy Connors and Ivan Lendl and put the 28-year-old Serb more than halfway to Federer’s record of 17.
“He’s clearly making a big name for himself,” Federer said, “having won as many times now as he has in these different Slams.”