This might not connect, not at all, but to be honest my mind is scrambled, buzzing in a million different directions, and I have to start somewhere if I really want to write about Sunday’s brilliant, stressful, joyous, melancholic and draining six and a half set marathon Wimbledon final between Novak Djokovic and Roger Federer. I feel like I have a thousand things to say, and I feel like I cannot say anything at all.
So let me tell you a little bit about my new two-handed backhand and see if that goes anywhere.
I’ve been working on the two-hander for about two months now. When I was a kid, I hit a two-handed backhand based loosely on the form of Mats Wilander, the wonderfully bland Swedish player who in the 1980s quietly won seven grand slam titles. And when I say he won them “quietly,” yeah, you didn’t know Mats Wilander won seven slams unless you happen to be Mats Wilander, to whom I say: “Grattis till att vinna sju mästerskap du tråkigt men underbar tennisstjärna.”
In the mid-2000s, I switched to a one-handed backhand. Guess why? Right. Roger Federer had come along. And once you saw his backhand … there wasn’t another. Federer’s backhand is what “I Heard it Through the Grapevine,” would look like if it was a tennis shot. It is what Grace Kelly would look like if she was a tennis shot. Federer’s backhand is Ken Griffey’s baseball swing and Ernie Els golf swing and Gregory Hines dance moves and Prince’s guitar playing and the last paragraph of “The Great Gatsby” rolled together. He can do anything with that shot — make the ball jump or sit, slide or retreat or dance. It isn’t a magic trick. It is magic itself.
With tennis — and tennis alone among sports — I can never quite rid myself of delusions of grandeur. I copied Federer’s backhand, best I could, and took it with me to the court in the full expectation of perfecting it.
That didn’t happen, it might surprise you to know. Fifteen years of hitting one-handed backhands, Federer style, has produced, maybe, 10 perfect shots. I cherish every last one of them. But the 24,549,374 misses suggested that it wasn’t an even trade.
Some time after that, I became obsessed with another backhand, a two-handed backhand hit by a brilliantly temperamental player from Serbia, Novak Djokovic. He too could could make a tennis ball do dog tricks — roll over, play dead, bark — but what made his backhand so magnificent was how it returned heat. Federer’s backhand could be overpowered sometimes (at least by the savage topspin of Rafael Nadal). Meanwhile, the harder anyone hit the ball at Djokovic’s backhand, the harder it came back. What more could anyone want?
So, for the last seven years, I hit a poor imitation of Federer’s backhand while longing to hit a poor imitation of Djokovic’s … or I feebly attempted to hit Djokovic’s backhand for a few minutes before giving up and going back to my feeble impersonation of Federer. Finally, two months ago, after numerous fits and starts, I committed to the Djokovic backhand, which I now hit almost as poorly as I used to hit the Federer backhand.
All of which is to say: Watching Sunday’s epic final felt a bit like being torn in two.
None of them is the greatest ever. I know this is a strange thing to say, but I’m more sure of this than ever. Roger Federer is not the greatest ever. Novak Djokovic is not the greatest ever. Rafael Nadal is not the greatest ever.
They all are.
They are the greatest ever, the three of them, a package deal. Sure, that might sound like a copout, and that’s not how they want it, obviously, and that’s not how fans want it either. But it seems to me the most reasonable conclusion. Yes, theoretically, we can argue about which one of them is the greatest in the same way that we can argue about who would win a fight between Superman, Thor and Phoenix. But it’s beside the point. They all win their share of fights.
Federer has the most grand slam titles. Nadal is untouchable on clay. Djokovic has a winning record against both of them. Federer has the greatest serve in the history of tennis and maybe the greatest forehand too. Djokovic has the greatest return in the history of tennis and maybe the greatest backhand too. Nadal is the greatest fighter ever on a tennis court, and the topspin he hits from both wings is unique.
Which one is the greatest? You can choose the fact that serves your argument. But choose carefully. You want Federer, point to the longevity, the career numbers, the quantity of victories, but understand that he won so many of those before Djokovic became self aware. You want Nadal, point to the fact that on one of the three surfaces, on clay, he is inarguably the best, but understand that on the other two he enters the arena as the underdog. You want Djokovic, point to his superiority over the other two, but understand that he has the relative advantage of youth, and that we will never know what a 24-year-old Federer would do against a 24-year-old Djokovic.
We can and will keep going round and round on this because we long for clarity, a singular answer, the greatest ever.
But it is the three of them, together, who have gone to another place. Let me simply point out two matches:
In 2016, Andy Murray beat Milos Raonic in straight sets to win Wimbledon.
In 2014, Marin Čilić beat Kei Nishikori in straight sets to win the U.S. Open.
What do those two matches have to do with anything? Those are the only two grand slam finals since 2005 — the ONLY TWO IN FOURTEEN YEARS going back to when YouTube was created — that did not include Roger Federer, Rafael Nadal or Novak Djokovic.
This is so mind-boggling it barely registers. Fed, Rafa or Nole played in 57 of the last 59 grand slam finals.
Two of them matched up in 22 of those finals.
This is impossible. And, at the same time, it is also so self-evident that we already know this. It isn’t that tennis has lacked talented young players for the last decade and a half. They keep coming in droves, players with 150 mph serves, players with scalding ground strokes, players who sprint around the court like road runners. But they never change the equation. It always Federer, Nadal, Djokovic.
That 2014 U.S. Open final felt epic in its own way because it felt like a turning of the page. Nadal was hurting. Čilić had destroyed Federer in the semifinal; Nishikori had outwilled Djokovic. It felt like the beginning of something new.
Same thing in 2016. Djokovic had lost his edge. Nadal was still hurting. Federer had been outserved by the gifted young Raonic. Murray had ascended. Eras come and go, and so it seemed like the Big Three Era had gone.
And what happened next? Fed, Rafa or Djokovic have won every single grand slam since the 2017 Australian Open. EVERY. SINGLE. ONE. Their combined record against all the other players in grand slams over that time? It’s absurd. It’s 157-13.
This year, when not facing each other in the slams, they are 51-2, the only two losses being Djokovic’s epic loss to Dominic Thiem in the winds of Paris and Federer’s Australian Open loss to the latest phenom to come along, Stefanos Tsitsipas.
The three are all in their 30s, which is supposed to be old for tennis players, and they are still unbeateable against every other player on earth.
It is only when they face each other that we see them in full flight. We ask, “Which one is the greatest?” when the more fascinating question might be, “How can three players just take off into space and leave the world behind?”
When Sunday’s heart-wrenching match ended, someone asked Roger Federer if he felt like he had been the better player. Fed won more games Sunday. He won 14 more points. He had more chances to win, including two championship points when he was serving late in the fifth set. Tennis’ scoring system is a bit like the electoral college; winning the popular vote doesn’t mean winning the presidency.
Federer shrugged. “It really doesn’t matter, actually,” he said.
It probably doesn’t matter. Federer could have won. Djokovic could have won. The tennis was sublime. The tennis was rickety. Federer lost his backhand for a time. Djokovic lost his serve for a time. Federer hit 90-plus winners against the best defensive player anyone can remember. Djokovic, in three tiebreakers against the greatest ever grass court player, made zero unforced errors. Every point felt heroic and important and death-defying. It was five hours of beautiful torture.
And there were echoes everywhere because these players have already done so much. Did this match remind you of the famous “greatest match ever played,” between Federer and Nadal at Wimbledon in 2008? Maybe. Or maybe it reminded you of the grueling five-set match between Djokovic and Nadal at Wimbledon last year. Or maybe it reminded you of the five-set battle for survival between Djokovic and Nadal at the 2012 Australian Open. Or maybe …
Echoes. Everywhere. This is what you get when players are both legendary AND actively still the best on earth.
Federer at 37 years old was attempting to become the oldest grand slam champion of the Open Era, but he still plays a young man’s game. He decided for this match he would attack relentlessly, dare Djokovic to beat him.
Djokovic is 32 years old, and he is famously volatile. He promised himself on this day that he would do the English thing, Keep Calm and Carry On, block out all those things that would normally set him off. He was intermittently successful doing so.
“When the crowd is chanting ‘Roger,’” he told the press afterward, “I hear ‘Novak.’”
The reporters broke up after that line, but Djokovic was not kidding. This, he insisted, was actually what he tried to do, he tried in his own mind to turn the “Roger! Roger!” pleas into “Novak! Novak!” cheers.
This is the apex the three have reached. Federer and Djokovic have now played 48 times. Federer and Nadal have played 40 times. Djokovic and Nadal have played 54 times. There are no surprises left between them. There is no place for any of them to go now except deeper into themselves.
Two points decided the match. Well, obviously, it was more than two points, but two points stand out, and Djokovic won both of them. Late the fifth set, with the sun down low enough to only brighten one corner of the court, Federer served for the match. He went up 40-15, he had two championship points, and lost one of them when Djokovic’s deep return forced him to spray a forehand just wide.
Then came Point No. 1: Federer cracked a 120-mph serve down the middle, where he had beaten Djokovic all day long. This time, Djokovic chipped his return back. Federer pounced, cracked a forehand and charged the net. He didn’t hit his approach as deep as he might have liked but against just about any other player on earth, it would have been good enough. Against Djokovic, it wasn’t. Djoker flipped a forehand crosscourt where it landed an inch or two inside the line. Djokovic quickly broke serve. Federer’s chance had passed.
Point No. 2 came in the tiebreak. It was the first-ever fifth set tiebreak in a men’s grand slam final, and it was the first-ever fifth set tiebreak for a singles match at Wimbledon. They changed the rules this year; it used to be that the fifth set would go on and on and until someone won the match properly. But this caused all sorts of problems (not to mention the famous John Isner 70-68 victory over Nicolas Mahut), and the Wimbledon folks decided to add the tiebreak this year. But, as a nod to history, they decided only to add it at 12-12 in the fifth; in other words, they would make the players play an entire sixth set before launching the tiebreak.*
*When asked how he felt about the 12-12 tiebreak, Federer channeled his inner Belichick and said: “It is what it is.”
After Fed and Djokovic reached 12-12, the tiebreak began and on the third point, Federer served and charged. Federer’s play on Sunday had reminded of the glory days of serve-and-volley tennis, had reminded of McEnroe and Stefan Edberg and Pete Sampras and the rest. Djokovic’s return was brilliant, right at Federer’s feet, but Federer had been making this volley all day.
Fed missed this one. He pushed his shot wide. And that was that. Djokovic took strength from the mini-break and finished off the tiebreak with relative ease. It was his third tiebreak victory in the match. It was his fifth Wimbledon title. When it ended, he celebrated quietly, perhaps out of respect for the greatness of the man he had beaten, perhaps out of exhaustion.
And in the aftermath, yes, my mind is scrambled, because I am happy for Djokovic and gutted for Federer, overjoyed by what I just saw and worried that it will be the last time. In the aftermath, yes, I am 52 years old, but I want to go to the court myself, hit the two-handed backhand, hit the one-handed backhand, feel just a little bit more of this match because the main thing I am feeling is that I do not want it to end.