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Battle of mind games as Novak Djokovic must fend of Federer demons to end run of Grand Slam final defeats

"When you get older, you start to think a little bit more"

Novak Djokovic has only won one of his past six Grand Slam finals Photograph: Getty
Novak Djokovic has only won one of his past six Grand Slam finals Photograph: Getty

"When you get older, you start to think a little bit more"

THE words come from Novak Djokovic, the adrenalin still running after reaching another Grand Slam final, his 14th. The Serb, who will be world No 1 again if he overcomes Roger Federer in the Wimbledon final today, was reflecting on how he, at 27, overcame the relatively inexperienced Grigor Dimitrov, the 23-year-old Bulgarian in the semi-final.

But thinking may not be the best approach to his bid to win his second Wimbledon title, thus denying the great Swiss player his eighth.

The Serb is desperate to be positive, but he has cause for anxious rumination. The fixtures stack up against him and although statistics can be the first casualty in the heat of battle, Federer has a battalion of them in his support.

He leads Djokovic 18-16 in the head to head, the Serb has won only one of his 44 titles on grass, Federer has won more matches this season than his opponent, the Swiss player has spent 10 hours 16 minutes on court in this tournament but Djokovic has worked for 15 hours and nine minutes, Federer has beaten Djokovic in their only meeting on grass and Federer has beaten Djokovic in their only meeting in a Grand Slam final, the US Open of 2007.

But there is one statistic that is lodged in Djokovic's brain like a poisonous barb. He has won only one of his past six Grand Slam finals. That damage has been inflicted exclusively by Rafael Nadal and Andy Murray. Djokovic does not want Federer to join that club.

There was ample evidence on Friday night that this record of falling at the last hurdle has become a problem for Djokovic. At first, he addressed it bullishly. "I should have won a few matches that I lost in the finals of Grand Slams in the last couple of years," he said. "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 at the end of the day. You have to be able to be at the top of your game, mentally fresh and motivated, calm and composed."

He added: "Things have to come together for you to win a Grand Slam. That's why not so many players throughout history have done that. So I appreciate all the results and respect all the opponents, Federer for example, for winning so many Grand Slams. It's a remarkable achievement."

There was a more revealing sentence that slipped out in a digression on the obvious skills of Federer. Winning Wimbledon 2014 "would mean a lot mentally for me".

Djokovic knows he has to overcome a psychological barrier to defeat the greatest player of all time. He is, of course, more than capable of doing so. He is the favourite with the bookmakers and has physical powers that may be waning in a 32-year-old Federer. His returning skills are excellent and he can serve powerfully and accurately.

Hic coach, Boris Becker, pointed out yesterday that all players were in a constant state of flux and that his charge, whose last Grand Slam victory was in Australia 2013, was no different.

"Once you have a good year, you naturally sit back a little and relax, enjoy the moment. When you've had a more difficult year, you're more eager and want to work a bit more the next year. These guys are not machines. They are human beings with emotions, with feelings. You cannot just push a button and expect them always to be perfect," Becker said.

Djokovic, though, will need to be close to that when he faces Federer today. The King of Grass believes Wimbledon is his personal fiefdom and has targeted the tournament as his best opportunity of extending his record of winning 17 Grand Slams. He has compiled 40 wins on tour this year (four more than Djokovic), he has marched towards the final, losing only a set, to Stanislas Wawrinka. He warmed up by winning on grass in Halle and his fitness schedule was specifically tailored by his trainer Pierre Paganini to bring the world No 4 to peak fitness for Wimbledon.

Federer is normally reticent when talking about his physical well-being, but has made a point of stressing he has played this year without the "issues" that hampered him in 2013. These mostly concerned his lower back, but his serving action has been smooth and his movement as fluid as ever. His press conferences throughout this tournament should have been conducted with Federer stroking a white Persian cat as the tone was one of regaining some kind of world domination. Federer, whose last Grand Slam final victory was over Andy Murray at Wimbledon 2012, has not been demoralised by his lack of success. He has been galvanised by it.

His run to the final has not surprised him. He said at the start of Wimbledon that he expected at least one of the big two to contest the final. The removal of Nadal has helped him, but it is his sheer mental resilience that sets Federer apart. He will step on to Centre Court believing he will win. Djokovic will have to stretch every sinew of his body and display every attribute that forms his undoubted talent to prevail. Crucially, he must overcome his doubts before he can hope to overcome Federer.

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