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By Alix Ramsay
And so on Sunday, Novak Djokovic and Roger Federer will do battle for the 35th time of asking: the 27-year-old world No.2 against the soon-to-be 33-year-old world No.4. The man who was in the French Open final just four weeks ago against the man who has been nowhere near a major final in two years. And the smart money has to be on Federer.
Before a ball has been struck, or a hugely over-priced glass of Pimms has been quaffed, Djokovic is sounding like a beaten man. At the very least, he is sounding like a scared man, a man who is trying to hide the fact that he has the yips. The Djoker is not smiling anymore and the closer he gets to the trophy, the glummer he looks.
He booked his ticket to Sunday’s finale with a 6-4, 3-6, 7-6, 7-6 win over Grigor Dimitrov, the face of the future. By putting the Bulgarian back in his box – and Federer doing likewise to Milos Raonic in straight sets – Djokovic protected the establishment from any unnecessary surprises. Young upstarts getting to major finals when the old guard still have ambitions to win the silverware would be too much to bear. But he made it hard for himself.
From having a stranglehold on the first set, he let Dimitrov back into the match in the second set. By the third and fourth sets, Dimitrov knew he could win if he could take his chances when they presented themselves. But when four sets points came and went in that fourth set, his moment had passed. Djokovic took his second match point and heaved a sigh of relief – he had escaped and was now in the final. But this is where it could all go horribly wrong.
Since his spectacular season in 2011 when he won three of the four majors, Djokovic has lost the knack of winning finals. He has won twice at the Australian Open since then but he has lost another five finals: two US Opens to Andy Murray and Rafa Nadal, two French Opens – both to Nadal – and one Wimbledon to Murray. The more it happens, the more he frets. The more he frets, the slimmer his chances are of claiming the trophy.
He hired Boris Becker at the end of last year to help him with the mental side of his game but, so far, old Boom-Boom has not worked his magic. He sits uncomfortably at the side of the court as, time and again, his man takes the lead, lets it slip and then digs himself into a deeper and deeper hole. Djokovic knows there is a problem, his whole team must know there is a problem but no one seems to know how to fix it.
“There is a reason for that obviously,” he said. “But, again, I’m working on it. I identified the problem. I know what’s going on. Sometimes it just happens. It happens not just because you play a bad game but sometimes your opponent plays well. It’s important to, even though if you lose a set or two sets, you know, be able to bounce back and recover from that. I’ve done that, and that’s a positive that I’m taking from these matches.
“Losing three out of four last grand slam finals, it cannot be satisfying. Of course. I don’t want to sound like I’m not appreciating to play finals of grand slam. It’s already a huge result. We cannot take that for granted. But, again, I know that I can win the title. I should have won few matches that I lost in finals of grand slams in last couple years.
“But it’s an experience. It’s a learning process. It’s understanding, identifying where the problem is, you know, pushing for it, working on it. It’s mental in the end of the day. You have to be able to be in the top of your game, mentally fresh and motivated, calm and composed.”
And, as he spoke, he sounded like a man who had not felt mentally fresh, calm and composed since 2011. In layman’s terms, he sounded as if he had lost his bottle. He was scared to lose again because he has made a habit of losing to his fellow members of the Gang of Four when he gets to a grand slam final.
He would not tell the assembled media exactly what the newly identified problem was but, then again, he did not have to. With every question, his answer came back to the subject of his mental state. His game is good enough to beat anyone on any surface, his physical strength has not been questioned for the past four years and his desire to win is plain to see. But whenever he gets to the crunch points against the big guys, when he knows he is in a position to win, a little voice whispers in his ear: “For God’s sake, Nole, don’t screw this up. Not again…” And so he screws it up and the next time he is in a major final, the voice in his ear gets a little louder.
“I’m not by myself,” he said, trying to sound positive. “I have the team of people around me that are experts in their own fields. They try to all help me out and analyse my game, as well as my mental approach and state in which I am. So we will try to understand, you know, what I did wrong in French Open final from a mental perspective, and to make it better in two days.”
Two days is not long to undo three years of fear and angst, especially as he now faces the man who thinks he invented self-belief. When the nice people at Wimbledon.com asked Rodge about his perfect day at the All England Club and who he would like to sit and watch a match with, he thought for a moment a said: “another legend, probably”. Rodge knows his place in the world order, all right.
He goes into Sunday’s final having swept aside Raonic and his fearsome serve 6-4, 6-4, 6-4. No problems there, then. He will also wake up on Sunday morning knowing that this will be his ninth final in SW19 and, to date, he has only lost one (to Nadal in 2008). That is a reassuring thought. He leads Djokovic 18-16 in their career rivalry and the only time they have met on grass – at Wimbledon in 2012 – he won with relative ease. The only time they have met in a grand slam final – the US Open in 2007 – he won in straight sets.
“Confidence is always a bit up and down,” Federer said, confidently, “but it’s important to reach a certain level where you trust your game, you play and trust yourself in the big moments. Then also physically, you know you can do five sets, you can do seven times five sets. That’s what the mindset has to be before a grand slam. I felt this way before this tournament.
“Especially now things get easier just because you know you have one match left. I have a lot of energy in the tank. From that standpoint I clearly am very excited for the finals because that’s how you want to feel before a finals, totally energised and eager to play.”
Federer is clearly relishing his two weeks in London. He is playing well – of that there is no doubt – and as he sees his rival struggling with his confidence and belief, he must know that half the battle has already been won. The younger men are physically stronger, they have fewer years of wear and tear in their joints and sinews but when it comes to self-belief, no one believes that he is greater than Roger Federer himself. Against that, and in his current state, Djokovic does not have a chance.