Novak Djokovic battled past Roger Federer in the longest Wimbledon final in history to match Bjorn Borg by winning his fifth title.
In one of the most dramatic matches the All England Club has ever witnessed, Djokovic defied a crowd screaming for his opponent by becoming the first player to win a singles match on a deciding tie-break.
Djokovic had saved two match points when Federer served for victory at 8-7 in the deciding set and went on to take it 7-6 (5) 1-6 7-6 (4) 4-6 13-12 (3) after four hours and 57 minutes.
Federer had hoped to follow up his emotional semi-final victory over Rafael Nadal by completing the double over his other great rival for the first time at a grand slam and fought back well having twice been a set down but this will be one of his most painful losses.
Djokovic has now won four out of the last five major tournaments, taking his overall tally to 16 and making Federer’s record of 20 seem ever more within reach.
The historical importance was a key theme of this final, with 37-year-old Federer staring at perhaps his last chance to put further distance between himself and his younger rivals.
Nadal is only two adrift and showing no sign of letting his iron grip on the French Open slip, while Djokovic has been open about the fact he is playing for history.
That perhaps played a part in this strange match, which rarely hit the heights in terms of sustained quality yet had enough plot twists for a feature-length thriller, even before its extraordinary deciding set.
Federer was the better player for all of the first four sets, with Djokovic’s game strangely off colour apart from his serve, but played two poor tie-breaks either side of a set that his opponent barely turned up for.
The fifth set was scarcely describable, finally ending in the 25th game when Federer, who had been chasing a ninth title, framed a forehand into the crowd.
The tie-break at 12-12 was introduced following last year’s epic semi-final between John Isner and Kevin Anderson yet had not been used in a singles match until this contest.
After 47 previous matches, 25 of them won by Djokovic, there were no secrets between these two and the first set was fascinating to watch as Federer sought to take his opponent out of his baseline comfort zone.
Federer, who had not beaten his rival since 2015, used the short backhand slice to pull Djokovic forward, mixed up the pace and threw in a number of drop shots.
He had a break point in the third game, and was two points from the set at 4-5, 0-30 but could not take either chance.
Errors then cost Federer after he turned a 1-3 deficit in the tie-break into a 5-3 lead, a mistimed backhand dropping into the tramlines on Djokovic’s first set point.
It must have been a painful set to lose for the Swiss but in double-quick time he was level at one-set all after an uncharacteristic mental lapse from his opponent.
A slip behind the baseline in the opening game perhaps unsettled Djokovic, who appeared to decide not to expend any unnecessary energy after going two breaks behind.
The most unexpected factor was how poorly Djokovic was returning but he somehow stayed with Federer through the third set.
He created one set point in the 10th game with a glorious half-volley but Djokovic’s serve – the one part of his game that was working well – bailed him out.
The Serbian was beginning to look very frustrated but he forced another tie-break and again it was Federer who unexpectedly crumbled.
Given Federer had never won a five-set match against Djokovic, that left him with a serious mountain to climb, but, just when it seemed he might finally be taking control, his level dropped again and Federer surged into a 5-2 lead.
Djokovic finally forced a break point, and converted it, to give himself a chance of rescuing the situation but Federer served out the set at the second opportunity, the partisan crowd roaring their approval.
History still said Djokovic was the favourite and, after Federer saved three break points in the third game of the decider, he made the breakthrough to lead 4-2.
But he could not cement it and on the match went, the tension growing with each point.
Djokovic was in trouble at 5-5, 15-30 but produced a diving volley winner, then Federer was two points from defeat three times in the next game but held on.
Federer, who turns 38 next month, looked to have made the crucial breakthrough when a forehand pass gave him an 8-7 lead and the chance to serve for the match.
His serve carried him to 40-15 but he netted a routine forehand on the first chance and was then passed by Djokovic, who went on to break back.
The world number one saved two more break points at 11-11 and that proved to be Federer’s final chance as Djokovic surged ahead in the tie-break and this time there was no way back.
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Roger Federer rated beating Rafael Nadal on Centre Court again one of his career highlights – but celebrations are on hold ahead of Sunday’s final against Novak Djokovic.
Eleven years on from their 2008 title decider, considered by many to be the greatest match in history, the long-awaited sequel did not disappoint.
Federer edged the first set before going off the boil in the second but he seized control again early in the third and held it all the way to a titanic final game.
Nadal had already saved two match points and he came up with his best tennis of the contest to save two more but Federer was not to be denied, the soon-to-be 38-year-old winning 7-6 (3) 1-6 6-3 6-4 after three hours and two minutes.
“It’s always very, very cool to play against Rafa here, especially (when we) haven’t played in so long,” said Federer.
“It lived up to the hype, especially from coming out of the gates, we were both playing very well. Then the climax at the end with the crazy last game, some tough rallies there. It had everything at the end, which was great, I guess. I’m just relieved it’s all over at this point.
“But it’s definitely going to go down as one of my favourite matches to look back at, because it’s Rafa, it’s at Wimbledon, the crowds were into it, great weather. I felt like I played good also throughout the four sets. I can be very happy.”
Not too happy, though, with the carrot of a 21st grand slam title at stake in two days’ time when he takes on his other career-defining rival in his 12th final at the All England Club.
“Age kicks in,” said Federer, who lost finals to Djokovic in 2014 and 2015.
“I know it’s not over yet. There’s no point to start partying tonight or get too emotional, too happy about it, even though I am extremely happy.
“I think I can, with experience, really separate the two. If it was the end of the tournament, it would be very different right now. I’d be speaking very different, feeling very different. There is, unfortunately or fortunately, one more.
“It’s great on many levels. But I’ve got to put my head down and stay focused.”
This was Federer and Nadal’s 40th meeting, a clash of styles and personalities that dates back 15 years and continues to capture the imagination like nothing else in sport.
Nadal had won 24 of their previous 39 matches and 10 of 13 at the slams but victory for Federer in the 2017 Australian Open final had showed him that he could win again when it mattered most.
Indeed, Nadal had not beaten Federer on a surface other than clay since 2014, ending a run of five straight defeats in the semi-finals of the French Open last month.
But the 33-year-old has played on grass without pain in his knees for the last couple of years and had looked in fine fettle throughout this fortnight.
The Spaniard’s serve had been particularly impressive – he went into the match having served more aces than Federer – and the first set was notable for how few rallies there were.
Nadal saved the only break point in the eighth game but Federer began to return better and that made the difference in the tie-break, which the Swiss ended with a run of five points in a row.
He had two chances to break for 2-1 in the second set but could not take them and began to misfire as Nadal ran away with it.
The crunch moments came early in the third set. Federer re-calibrated and broke serve for 3-1, and then showed powers of defence more often associated with the man across the net to withstand intense pressure and cement the hold.
That seemed to dent Nadal’s famously indomitable spirit and, although he kept fighting until the end, he was forced to concede that he lost to the better player.
“I had my chances,” said Nadal, who won the second of his two titles here in 2010.
“He played a little bit better than me, I think. Probably I didn’t play as good as I did in the previous rounds, and he played well. So he deserves it. Congrats to him.
“I created another opportunity to be in another final of a grand slam. Just accept that it was not my day. I played a great event. I take this in a positive way. Today is sad because for me I know chances are not forever.”
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Cori Gauff could not bring her sensational Wimbledon singles form into the mixed doubles as she and Jay Clarke lost in the first round.
Clarke had upset fellow Brit Harriet Dart, with whom he reached the semi-finals last year, by opting at the last minute to play with 15-year-old Gauff.
But the fledgling partnership did not last long, Gauff and Clarke going down 6-1 6-4 to Sweden’s Robert Lindstedt and Latvian Jelena Ostapenko.
At least Gauff can now concentrate on the singles following her remarkable comeback win over Polona Hercog, which followed victories against Venus Williams and Magdalena Rybarikova.
The American faces former world number one Simona Halep in the last 16 on Monday.
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