It seems fitting that Novak Djokovic and Roger Federer will contest the gentlemen's singles final at Wimbledon on Sunday in a bid to win their third and eighth titles, respectively, at The All England Club.
Top seed and World No. 1 versus second seed and World No. 2. Best player of this season against, arguably, the best, most entertaining player of this year's Championships. A rematch of last year's Wimbledon final, which Djokovic won in a five-set, see-saw, high-quality encounter to claim his second Wimbledon and seventh Grand Slam title.
Federer has a slight lead in their rivalry, 20-19, but Djokovic has won two of their three encounters this season, at the finals of the ATP Masters 1000 tournaments in Indian Wells and in Rome, the latter an easy, straight-sets win. Federer won the final of the Masters 500 event in Dubai.The Swiss put on an absolute masterclass of grass-court tennis in his straight-sets win over Andy Murray in the semifinals. It was a performance that was closer to his peak years of 2004-2007 than it was to recent years, when fluctuations with his single-handed backhand and his serve have become an increasingly common feature of his performances.
Murray hardly played badly in that semifinal. In retrospect, the Scot's decision to receive, rather than serve, first seems questionable, but apart from that, Federer was just too good. He made 76% of his first serves and won 84% of points behind those first deliveries. The Swiss served 20 aces in the match, including 11 in the first set. After the first game, Federer didn't face a single break point in the entire match.
Federer's point construction in the semifinal bordered on the Sampras-ian, with a healthy dose of his own deft touches thrown in. With Murray serving to stay in the match at 4-5, 0-15 in the third set, Federer was pushed to his backhand corner by a strong forehand approach from the Scot. Unable to get to the ball in time to set up properly, the Swiss extended his racquet and hit a no-look backhand flick that found the sharpest of angles between the corner of the open court and Murray at the net. It was a point that served to underscore his performance, much like the tweener winner he hit in his 2009 US Open semifinal against Djokovic.
It wouldn't be a stretch to suggest that the late David Foster Wallace, author of the essay, "Federer as religious experience", which is based on watching Federer at Wimbledon in 2006, would have felt a sense of deja vu were he to have seen Federer's performance in the semifinal against Murray.
It remains to be seen if Federer's serve can remain at that high a level against the more consistent and determined return of the Serb, on an occasion of far greater magnitude. The inevitable dip in the serve was expected against Murray, but has yet to come. In a tournament where the Swiss has been broken just once, holding serve for 116 consecutive service games prior to that, the evidence suggests that a letdown in Federer's serving performance isn't coming any time soon.
And that's how it must be, against the best returner in the world currently. Federer's win in Dubai came thanks to a near-perfect serving performance, giving Djokovic no chance to get back in the match. In a best-of-five-sets match, that level will be harder to produce and sustain, but it remains Federer's best chance of winning his first Grand Slam since Wimbledon 2012.
What about Djokovic, though? He came into the Wimbledon final last year with demons of his own to exorcise, having won just two out of his seven previous Grand Slam finals. He had to get his second title at The All England Club the hard way, as one would expect it to be when facing Federer in a final on Centre Court. The Serb let slip a 5-2 lead and a match point in the fourth set, losing five consecutive games to find himself in a no-tiebreaker fifth set. Like Rafael Nadal in the 2008 final, Djokovic didn't let the missed match point get in the way of his lifting the title.
Djokovic enters Sunday's final in a somewhat similar predicament. He lost the French Open final last month to Stan Wawrinka in a match that he was expected to win after handing Nadal just his second career defeat on the clay of Paris, in the quarterfinals. With just two exhibition matches on grass as warm-up coming into Wimbledon, doubts existed as to whether the Serb would have some scar tissue left over from that loss in Paris.
With the exception of the five-set fight-back he had to engineer against Kevin Anderson in the fourth round, Djokovic has put on his usual clinical, efficient best in reaching the final, thus putting all those doubts to rest. However, the Serb would like nothing more than to put that loss firmly and officially behind him by winning his ninth Grand Slam title on Sunday evening.