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AFTER NEARLY five hours on the court and over 400 points of tennis, the men’s singles final at Wimbledon this year was decided by the tennis equivalent of a coin-flip: a first-to-seven-point tiebreak. On July 14th Roger Federer, a 37-year-old eight-time Wimbledon champion, outplayed his opponent. He hit more aces, won more points and broke serve more often. But the man across the net, Novak Djokovic, a 32-year-old who is the top-ranked male player, executed his game better when it mattered. The Serbian saved two match points in the 16th game of the final set, making Mr Federer the first man since 1948 to get within one shot of winning Wimbledon and then lose. Mr Djokovic dominated the climactic tiebreak to secure his 16th career major title, only four behind the all-time record held by his opponent.
The final score, 7-6(5), 1-6, 7-6(4), 4-6, 13-12(3), is unique in the sport’s history. Traditionally at the All England Club, the deciding set continues until one player builds a two-game lead. This allowed for the greatest of tennis oddities: 2010’s three-day battle in which John Isner defeated Nicolas Mahut by a final-set score of 70-68. Last year two marathon semi-finals, including a six-and-a-half hour contest again involving Mr Isner, wreaked havoc with the schedule. Wimbledon responded by changing its scoring system to force a tiebreak at 12-all in the deciding set. The new rule ensured that either Mr Djokovic or Mr Federer would be crowned champion before one of them collapsed from exhaustion. But it did not compromise the excitement of the battle. This match will take its rightful place among the most captivating in the sport’s history.
Much of the day’s legacy can be credited to the strength of its cast. Mr Djokovic and Mr Federer were facing each other for the 48th time, in their fifth major final. (The 2014 and 2015 Wimbledon title matches were similarly close duels that went the way of Mr Djokovic.) Both men have, at various times, towered over the rest of the field, and cases can be made that either one is “greatest of all the time” (or, in sporting parlance, the GOAT). Together with Rafael Nadal, a 12-time French Open winner who fell to Mr Federer in the semi-finals, they have maintained an unprecedented stranglehold on men’s tennis. None of the veterans is playing his very best tennis these days, but all three are ageing gracefully, easily swatting aside threats from up-and-comers.
At this year’s tournament, the stars aligned for a particularly combative final. Mr Djokovic is the superior all-round player, but Mr Federer’s game is well-suited to the Wimbledon grass. Although the 37-year-old’s pinpoint serving can dominate a match on a fast surface, the on-court conditions were unusually slow over the fortnight. In sum, it was a near-perfect balance. Mr Federer won 218 of the 422 points played, at a rate of 51.7%. That is well within the range of “lottery matches”: contests where a bit of luck, or nerveless play at crucial moments, can tilt the result in either direction.