WIMBLEDON, England — It was a Wimbledon men’s final that was epic and historic, with Novak Djokovic able to overcome a crowd that was negative and an opponent, Roger Federer, who was resilient.
In the longest championship match in the tournament’s history — 4 hours, 55 minutes — Djokovic won his fifth Wimbledon title, 7-6 (5), 1-6, 7-6 (4), 4-6, 13-12 (3), and kept Federer from winning his ninth. Sunday was the first time a tiebreaker determined the winner of the 133-year-old event. The All England Club altered its rules this year and stipulated that a deciding set would go to a tiebreaker if the score reached 12-12.
Djokovic became the first man in 71 years to win the tournament after being down match points in the final. Behind 8-7 in the last set, he rallied after Federer twice failed to seal victory at 40-15.
“It was probably the most demanding match I ever played mentally,” Djokovic said. “I was probably one shot away from losing. This match had everything. You live for this.”
Federer couldn’t quite stay alive. “I had my chances,” he said. “He gives away very little.”
So Federer couldn’t add to his record of 20 major singles victories. Rafael Nadal has 18 and Djokovic has 16.
“Unfortunately, in these kinds of matches, one of the players has to lose,” Djokovic said. “It’s quite unreal.”
Djokovic’s strength usually is his return game, but as he pointed out, he did a relatively poor job with it against Federer, known for his serve, especially on the grass at Wimbledon.
“But at the most important moments,” Djokovic said, “I found my best game.”
Those came in the tiebreakers in the first, third and fifth sets, with that last one taking two minutes more than two hours.
Federer certainly had the crowd on his side. The 15,000 fans screamed and hooted every time he scored a point and treated Djokovic with disrespect, if not disdain. But Djokovic, who can be emotional, said he was mentally prepared for the fans as much as for Federer.
“One thing,” Djokovic said, “I promised myself coming on court today, I got to stay calm.”
He played well the first set, then seemingly fell asleep, if not apart, in the second set. Then he won another tiebreaker in the third.
“First of all,” Djokovic said, “playing against Roger on any surface — but on grass in the finals — it’s a lot of constant pressure, because he stays close to the line.”
Yet Djokovic has won his last five matches against Federer, including three at Wimbledon.
“Regardless of whom he is playing,” Djokovic said, “whether the serve is coming 150 miles an hour or as mine, 120, he’s there. He anticipates very well. He’s so talented. He’s got a perfect game for the surface.”
Djokovic’s game also works at Wimbledon, although he couldn’t do much with Federer’s serve until, as he said, it mattered.
“Especially second-serve returns,” Djokovic said. “I was not going well at all. So I knew I needed some variety. I had to be sharp when I have a shorter ball. At times I did. At times I didn’t.”
In a way, that comment summed up the play of both men. But when one is No. 1 in the rankings and the other No. 3 and is considered the top player ever, that’s the sort of match to expect. It wasn’t going to be consistent.
It was going to be long, however, because of their skills and doggedness. The first set alone took as much time as Saturday’s entire women’s final, in which Simona Halep blitzed Serena Williams.
The presumption was that Federer, nearing his 38th birthday, wanted quick points, and he did play aggressively at times. Still, the match went almost five hours, longer even than the 2008 Wimbledon final in which Nadal beat Federer in 4 hours, 48 minutes.
“You’ve got to push him,” Federer said of his tactics against Djokovic. “He gives away very little unforced errors. I know what I did well, how close I was. I think I can be happy about my performance.”
Happy, but not triumphant.