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Federer's unforgettable resistance broken at the last

THE sun-baked centre court may be an odd place to rage against the dying of the light.

Roger Federer  is consoled by his opponent after his glorious resistance  was finally broken  in the fifth set.  Picture: Reuters
Roger Federer is consoled by his opponent after his glorious resistance was finally broken in the fifth set. Picture: Reuters

Yet that is the spot chosen by Roger Federer to make what might be his last stand.

His white bandana stark in the heat of battle, Federer heard the sound of battle on Centre Court yesterday afternoon and hurtled towards it. His tactics were unrefined, almost crude.

The greatest artist of the game abandoned all pretence of subtlety and pressed Novak Djokovic remorselessly with a performance that had echoes of charges at Balaclava. It ended with a similar brutality for Federer. But it was magnificent.

Novak Djokovic won the gentleman's singles at Wimbledon 6-7(7), 6-4, 7-6(4), 5-7, 6-4 in three hours 56 minutes. These are just figures, however. What happened on Centre Court was an unremitting, unforgiving test of character. Federer will have nothing to do with the sort of cliched rubbish that shouts with an obvious insincerity that there are no losers in such a contest.

He will not countenance such manufactured sentiment. He is a born winner, with 17 grand slams to his name. He lost, for sure, but he was participant in a desperate, breathtaking struggle; he was party to a resurrection and a witness to a stirring act of redemption.

It cannot be forgotten that Djokovic emerged the hero. For the second consecutive year, he faced a crowd that was backing his opponent and he carried the wounds of recent failure in grand slam finals into the arena. He had won only one of the past six he had contested. But there was more.

He had a losing record against Federer, he has only one grass court title in his life and he was facing the King of Grass.

Yet he prevailed. He lost the first set despite winning more points, he won the match despite having and losing a championship point at 5-2 in the fourth set. The 27-year-old is back as world No.1.

Federer, at 32 years and 332 days, made him fight for that honour and for the most famous title in tennis with a physicality backed by the unwavering belief of the perennial champion.

There were shifts of fortune in a final of generally short, sharp exchanges. But there were constants, too. The first was the swell of support that broke over Federer in his moments of success and the second was the faith the Swiss player retained in himself in the most trying moments.

This resilience was finally matched by Djokovic. There had been questions about his psychological well-being in the big moments. Had his ability to convert opportunity in to the currency of triumph faltered, even disappeared? He took huge blows on Centre Court, he fell and was injured, but he rose and won his seventh grand slam title, the first since Australia 2013.

He did this by fighting off a Federer who was channelling his inner Stefan Edberg. The chats with his coach must have strengthened their belief that Djokovic's end must be swift and brutal. Federer powered in 29 aces with a first serve percentage that peaked at 83% in the third set. He came to the net 36 times, taking it on the chin when the Serb passed him.

But, crucially, Djokovic was obdurate on serve, only being broken in the third set. He answered misfortune with power and precision, he reacted to a lack of support by a quiet defiance and when the tide turned against him he struggled and then came through.

The story of the match was one of fabulous change and inexorable tension. The first set went with serve with Djokovic exerting pressure, but no more, on Federer. The tie break, as a spoiler for what was to come, was extraordinary in its capacity to produce excitement. Federer raced to a 3-0 lead, then Djokovic had two set points, and then Federer took the first set point offered him to win it 9-7. Pretty straightforward, really.

The second set was the most routine in a match that would sneer at such a description. Djokovic broke Federer at 1-1 and proceeded to take the set on the second point offered.

The war of attrition then began in earnest in the third set with serving power ruling until 5-5 when Djokovic crafted two break points. Federer flexed his muscles, served big and survived to contest a tie break. He stuttered and Djokovic took it 7-4.

This, then, was surely the sign of the younger man gaining the momentum and cruising to victory. And so it seemed. Djokovic, looking ever more confident, broke the greatest champion of all time and led 5-2. He even created a match point that Federer, with an almost unnecessary flourish, saved with an ace and the aid of Hawk Eye.

Then something strange happened, something wonderful, something that takes two men hitting a yellow ball into the realms of unspeakable drama and pulsating excitement. It was something barely credible.

In sporting terms, Federer was on the life support machine and the plug had just fused. Yet with something innate, something intangible, he turned the tide of the match with an act of will. He took five successive games to win the set.

Djokovic, needing treatment to a leg injury, could be forgiven for asking for help to mend a broken heart. This was his crisis and he not only faced it but overcame it with a gritty resilience, batting away a break point before placing yet more pressure on the creaking shoulders of Federer.

With almost four hours of battle behind him, Federer had to serve to stay in the championship.

He did not so much crack as was broken, shattered by the irresistible power of Djokovic. The Serb squeezed out two championship points. The Swiss played a backhand into the net. It was over.

Djokovic, who had overcome doubt and vanquished the greatest player in tennis, took his bow by munching the grass and making the obligatory walk to his box.

Federer, beaten but undiminished, sat in his chair. He was alone but the scene recalled the moment when Joe Frazier sat on his stool in Manila, battered by Ali but still up for the fight though prevented from carrying on.

Federer had only his thoughts for company. But Frazier had Eddie Futch, a trainer of compassion and wisdom. He told the warrior: "It's all over. No-one will forget what you did here today."

This sentiment applied to Federer yesterday. Djokovic was the winner. But both finalists made it memorable.

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