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When All Men Doubt You

Two historic Wimbledon finals

When Roger Federer steps onto Centre Court for a Wimbledon men’s final, he has an aura he has earned but seems born with, a grace and superiority that seems a birthright. On Sunday, he seemed a throwback in so many ways. During the first set, he struck the ball with implacable grace. He skimmed the grass as he moved toward the net. He was patiently aggressive as he opened up the court. He had the regal air of a man who represents more than only himself, of a man at once standing on the court and sitting in the royal box. Yes, he is 32. There are people who assumed not only that he would never again win seven rounds of best-of-five sets, but that he would never again get this far. But he did not seem to carry his history as a burden. It seemed to carry him.

Novak Djokovic arrived at Centre Court weighted by his recent past. Lately, he’s been talking about the chances that have slipped away, the titles he’s lost. He acknowledged he had not been playing his best — not by his standards, anyway — over the two weeks at the All England Club, that he had been “self-critical” on the court, and it was true. He had tried to hurry points, not trusting himself to win the long rallies he used to count on. Or he had pushed and waited for the error, abandoning his precise, clean strokes in favor of steadier topspin. He’d lost his footing, jammed his shoulder, skidded and slipped on the turf. He had been on the court for nearly 50 percent more time than Federer, who had glided easily into the final. Yet at the start of the match, Djokovic found himself as part of something special. He and Federer played an ideal first set. Djokovic was clean and precise. He stretched for balls, sliding into splits, and directed difficult backhands up the line. He sprinted, cut, and lunged. He cut off angles and sent balls dipping along trajectories that seemed to involve different dimensions. He hit deep returns, protected his serve, and played the kind of tennis that called to mind some ancient martial art, a series of maneuvers that blurred offense and defense. He could strike a blow with the block of a punch.

It was an extraordinary first hour of tennis. So little separated Djokovic and Federer from each other, and so much separated them from everyone else. Neither threatened to break the other, and yet every point was dramatic, tense, and close.

Then things got wonky. This match, nearly four hours long, is already considered a classic, but at times it was a little weird to watch. The incredible quality of the first set hung over the rest, as both a rebuke and a reminder. For stretches, Federer’s sense of his greatness seemed to leak away. Djokovic, who’d found himself reaching levels of play that few can during the first set, almost as a matter of course, nearly seemed to withdraw, accepting as inevitable that when it counted, he would lose. The drama for the rest of the match was watching Federer resume his presumption — watching him remember where and who he was. For Djokovic, the battle seemed like more of a battle. He had to fight not only Federer but also his own doubts.

He had, in some ways, the quieter performance. You had to look harder at first to see how great it was. Federer hit ace after ace — 29 for the match, and 13 in the third set alone — and yet his serve was actually the less effective of the two. Djokovic’s second serve was the shot of the match. He was able to kick it up out of Federer’s strike zone, and he won an astonishing 65 percent of second-serve points, compared with 44 percent for his opponent. Federer served and volleyed beautifully, but Djokovic’s deep and aggressive returning, and his wicked backhand passing shots punished Federer at crucial points when he came to net. For every strength, the other had an antidote. There were also baffling stretches. One point would sometimes contradict the previous one. Federer played with the easy confidence we once saw from him, yet even his forehand — that gorgeous, fluid forehand — looked loose at a handful of late crucial points, drifting long or curling wide. During the second set, Djokovic lost his footing and slipped, and, though he won that set convincingly, seemed to lose some trust in his feet. At times, he looked more tired than the older player. Yet he was still the one who reached more balls and hit far more winners off the ground. It was the kind of match that featured few break chances until it featured a run of them. The kind of match in which a player could save championship point in the fourth set, respond with an ace, win the next five games, and then lose the final set. Which is to say, the kind of tennis you could imagine but hadn’t ever seen, because it hadn’t ever been played.

R-Fed-Tri

For a time, it seemed as if Djokovic would accept the narrative that he had lost the ability to close out the biggest matches — that he would let things slip away, would lose the big points. He sometimes seems to see himself as other people see him. He can project the air of someone who thinks he is highly competent, even the arrogance of someone who thinks himself more competent than anyone else — but also the insecurity of someone who thinks he is good at everything but the best at no one thing. He can hit any shot, but no shot is his alone. He is underachieving, the loser in his last three major finals and in five of his last six. He loses his nerve during big points. He’s said so himself. What he has done hadn’t changed history. He doesn’t have the transcendent quality of Federer or the elemental force of Nadal. They are exemplary; he’s the class clown — charming but frustrating, talented but disappointing. His long face has had that look a lot in the past two years, the look of disappointment.

He can seem to forget he is special. He can seem to forget how singular his game is. He can stretch for a ball, sliding into a split, direct a difficult backhand up the line, and then find the strength to right himself and recover. He can run, sprinting and cutting and lunging for hours. He can cut off an angle and send a ball dipping along the sharp trajectory of his choosing. He can go for lines and hit them; he can nail corners when the safer shot would land a foot inside. It’s as if he forgets he believes in magic, forgets he’s a mystic, forgets to do something brave.

Then, sometimes, he remembers. The pleasure of watching him is in seeing him rediscover that sense of himself and his power. You could see it in the puffed-out cheeks of a mock sigh, in the slight grimacing smile. He hit risky second serves, and their bounces sent up chalk. He struck backhand returns that were flat, quick, and deep. He moved left and hit sharply angled, inside-out forehands. His balls dove and skidded. He roared when he needed to roar. But he kept his head. This was a calmer confidence than he’d shown in the past, less showy and more composed. In the fifth set, he started to look around at the crowd. It wasn’t on his side — not at all. But it was watching him. He performed.

At the end, when it was over, he raised his arms. He didn’t tear his shirt or pound his chest or fall down immediately. There was relief on his face and in his voice, and in the tears that made his eyes shine. He had survived.

He thanked his fiancée, his unborn child, and his first coach, Jelena Gencic, the woman who had taught him the fundamentals of the game, in a speech that was at once funny, humble, and proud. He still didn’t quite have the champion’s aura. What he had instead in the moment was at once more meaningless and more meaningful. Forget the tennis. He just seemed like a good guy.

Eugenie-Bouchard=Tri

Eugenie Bouchard — the one who hadn’t yet won Wimbledon — was the one who walked onto Centre Court for the women’s final with swagger. She had good reason. The agents were salivating. The press was hyped. The commentators on ESPN were in her corner. Princess Eugenie, whom Bouchard is named after, was in the royal box. You could be forgiven for thinking the coronation had already happened.

Bouchard had done her part so far to earn it. She had reached three consecutive major semifinals, and her game is best suited to grass. She takes the ball astonishingly early, returning every serve from well inside the baseline, scraping balls off the ground as they bounce, returning hard-hit balls with even more force. It’s not a pretty style. She has hitchy strokes and slaps at the ball. But her game works. Tennis is not a beauty contest. She had established herself as a competitor, someone for whom winning is everything. It was working. She was winning all the time.

Then, on Saturday, Petra Kvitova blasted her off the court. Kvitova played some of the best first-strike tennis I have ever seen. She would have pushed Bouchard to the wall had Bouchard not tried so stubbornly to hold her ground. Bouchard stuck to her aggressive style, even though it meant that balls were caught late on her racket, if she could reach them at all. The Canadian didn’t play badly in the first set, but she didn’t adjust. By the end of the match, she had almost stopped leaning to reach shots.

Three years ago, Kvitova pushed Maria Sharapova around and won the title. Back then, she seemed full of promise. In the time since, she had struggled with the spotlight, with injuries, with self-doubt. She would construct the perfect point, draw the short ball, and hit her approach three feet long. On Saturday, though, she not only could do no wrong, but knew it, too. She hit big lefty kick serves and flat service winners. She used slice, flat power, and touch. To go ahead 3-1 in the first set, she won a long, defensive rally with a sharp backhand, struck on a dead run, that just slid across the net. That was the moment when she said to herself, “OK, that’s not normal.” The moment when she knew what she was doing was special.

She didn’t shy from that. She accepted the inspiration. She swung freely, wasn’t rattled by anything, and didn’t let down. She didn’t seem to think of what it meant or what might go wrong. She just hit the ball.

It was thrilling. It was tennis — perfect tennis. It looked fun.

Filed Under: Tennis, Wimbledon, 2014 Wimbledon, Eugenie Bouchard, Roger Federer, Novak Djokovic

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Louisa Thomas is a Grantland staff writer and a fellow at the New America Foundation.

Archive @ louisahthomas