The Trivalry: Part III – The Federer-Djokovic Rivalry

Novak Djokovic and Roger Federer at the conclusion of the 2019 Wimbledon final.
In the third of his four-part series examining the extraordinary three-way “Trivalry” between Federer, Nadal and Djokovic, which has ended with Federer’s retirement, Martin Keady, our resident tennis historian, looks back at the specific rivalry between Federer and Djokovic.

Some might argue that the Federer-Djokovic rivalry was the least compelling of the three distinct rivalries that collectively make up the great Trivalry of men’s tennis. It may have lacked the classic contrast of opposites that characterised the Federer-Nadal rivalry or the remarkable physical intensity of the decade-long battle between Nadal and Djokovic contest. But what it did produce was several magnificent Major finals and semifinals between two remarkably gifted sportsmen, defined as much by their similarities as their differences.

Djokovic Is The Most Famous Third Man Since Harry Lime

The term “The most famous Third Man Since Harry Lime” was initially applied to another sportsman who came along after an apparent duopoly of talent had been established. That was Frank Rijkaard, the third of the truly great trio of Dutch footballers who won European titles with both their club (AC Milan) and their country at the end of the 1980s. Rijkaard, an outstanding midfielder in his own right, remained largely in the shadows cast by his more high-profile team-mates, Marco Van Basten and Ruud Gullit, until he scored the winning goal in the 1990 European Cup final for Milan against Benfica and generated “Third Man”-quoting headlines.

However, the term is even more applicable to Djokovic, because Rijkaard only added to his more famous compatriots’ abilities whereas Djokovic faced the far harder task of ending Federer and Nadal’s dual control of men’s tennis when he emerged in the mid-noughties. And yet he completed that Herculean task so successfully that in the next decade he achieved a level of domination (or should that be “djomination”?) of men’s tennis that Nadal only ever matched at Roland Garros and Federer only ever matched for a much shorter period: roughly the three years between 2004 and 2007; and the two seasons of 2017 and 2018.

Nevertheless, because the Federer-Nadal rivalry had already been established for a number of years by the time Djokovic began to compete for Majors (he reached his first Major final at the US Open in 2007 and won his first Major in Melbourne in 2008), many tennis fans had already chosen one of Federer or Nadal as their own personal favourite and there were few “undecided” fans left for Djokovic to convert.

As a result, despite his own extraordinary run of success over the last decade, Djokovic has always remained something of an outsider in the great Trivalry of men’s tennis. There is certainly not the close personal connection between him and either Federer or Nadal that has been so evident between Federer and Nadal since the announcement of Federer’s retirement.

Fortunately for Djokovic and his fans, that sense of always being an outsider has, if anything, only fuelled his desire to be regarded as the Greatest of All Time. Of all The Big Three, he has been most explicit in saying that he wants to end his career with the highest number of Majors. And given that he is a year younger than Nadal and has had nothing like the Spaniard’s long history of injury problems, there is still every chance that he will ultimately achieve that goal.

The History of the Federer-Djokovic Rivalry

As mentioned above, Djokovic reached his first Major final at the US Open in 2007, but despite taking Federer to two tie-breaks in the first two sets he still lost in straight sets, 7–6 (7–4), 7–6 (7–2), 6–4. Then he built on that breakthrough Major performance by winning the very next Major, the 2008 Australian Open, in the process beating Federer in the semifinal.

However, Djokovic failed to consolidate that maiden Major win by consistently challenging Federer and Nadal at other Majors, at least for the next couple of seasons. It was only after his literally life-changing diagnosis of gluten intolerance at the end of 2010 that he was finally able to shake off his legacy of niggling injuries and consistently compete for the biggest prizes in tennis, as Federer and Nadal had been doing for the previous five years or more.

Djokovic’s breakthrough season came in 2011, when he won three of the four Majors and ascended to world #1. Significantly, however, Federer stopped him from even contemplating a Calendar Slam when he defeated him in the French Open semifinal. And Federer achieved an even more impressive Major semifinal victory the following year, when he beat Djokovic in the 2012 Wimbledon semifinal en route to claiming his seventh Wimbledon title. Consequently, at the start of the last decade it seemed that for all of Djokovic’s week-to-week domination of the ATP tour, when it came to the key encounters at Majors Federer still just about had the edge over his much younger rival.

That all changed over the rest of the decade as Federer consistently found himself unable to beat Djokovic when it really mattered, namely at the Majors and especially at Wimbledon. The two men contested three Wimbledon finals in six seasons – 2014, 2015 and 2019 – and although each match was close and two of them (2015 and 2019) were all-time great Major finals, Djokovic won each one of them, to complete a hat-trick of Wimbledon final victories over Federer. Federer had achieved the same feat against Andy Roddick a decade earlier, beating him in the 2004, 2005 and 2009 Wimbledon finals. Now, however, the tennis shoe was firmly on the other foot as Federer continually succumbed, albeit often by the narrowest of margins, to Djokovic.

That 2019 Wimbledon classic was not the last time that Federer and Djokovic met at a Major. Their final encounter at a Slam came in the 2020 Australian Open semifinal, when Federer first began to exhibit what would ultimately prove to be the the waning of his once near-miraculous powers. Despite visibly struggling on court, he somehow took Djokovic to a first-set tie-break. However, he lost it and ultimately lost the match in straight sets, 7-6 (7-1), 6-4, 6-3. It was an unfitting end to what had been a great rivalry, but one that Djokovic had ended up dominating.

The Two 21st Century Kings of Grass and Hardcourt

In effect, from about 2014 onwards Djokovic replaced Federer as the king of grass and hardcourt tennis, while Nadal remained more or less the permanent king of clay (notwithstanding Djokovic’s two French Open triumphs in 2016 and 2021). Although very different in style – Federer was the ultimate attacker, whether from the baseline or at the net, whereas Djokovic is the greatest defensive player that tennis has ever seen, routinely getting back balls that appeared almost impossible to return – both men thrived on the fastest surfaces in tennis.

The only slight regret about their rivalry is that they were arguably never at their best simultaneously for a long period. When Federer was at his sublime best, in 2004-07 and 2017-18, Djokovic was effectively absent from the court: first, because he was still emerging as a Major contender; and, secondly, because he was experiencing the brief spell in the tennis wilderness that followed his achievement of the Career Grand Slam in Paris in 2016.

And when Djokovic finally emerged from that brief hiatus, he proved again, as he had in 2014 and 2015, that for all of Federer’s skill, grace and sheer elan, he could beat him with his own unique skill set: genius returning; high-percentage serving; and a willingness to take on absolutely anyone, even Federer and his adoring army of fans (who were never louder in their support of Federer than during the 2019 Wimbledon final), and still triumph.

The Five Finest Federer-Djokovic Matches At The Majors

  1. The 2015 Wimbledon Final: Djokovic Wins 7–6 (7–1), 6–7 (10–12), 6–4, 6–3

It says much about the exceptional quality of the 2014 and 2019 Wimbledon finals that the second part of the great Federer-Djokovic Wimbledon triptych is almost considered a damp squib in comparison – a poor sequel, as many commentators put it, to the 2014 classic. And yet by any other measure the 2015 Wimbledon final was a fine match, especially at the outset when Djokovic and Federer traded tiebreaks. Eventually, however, Djokovic’s ability to return even Federer’s finest serves wore Federer down and the Serb triumphed in four sets.

  1. The 2011 French Open Semifinal: Federer Wins 7-6 (7-5), 6-3, 3-6, 7-6 (7-5)

The first sign that Djokovic would become a dominant world #1 for much of the next decade came at the start of the 2011 season, when he built on his 2010 Davis Cup win with Serbia by winning the first 41 matches of the year. It was a spectacular run of form that took him to his second Australian Open title and seemed set to give him the chance of challenging for the Calendar Slam. Federer, however, produced one of his finest ever displays at Roland Garros to beat Djokovic in four sets in the semifinal. Nevertheless, as would so often prove to be so the case for Federer over the following decade, ultimately it was a Pyrrhic victory, as he succumbed to Nadal in four sets in the final.

  1. The 2012 Wimbledon Semifinal: Federer Wins 6-3, 3-6, 6-4, 6-3

Federer’s last victory over Djokovic at his beloved Wimbledon came more than a decade ago, in the 2012 Wimbledon semifinal, when he again stopped the Serb just as he had begun to appear unstoppable. If Djokovic was not quite as dominant in 2012 as he had been a year earlier, he was still in fine form when Federer faced him in the 2012 Wimbledon semifinal. And yet Federer rolled back the years to his mid-noughties pomp to triumph in four sets, and went on to win the title by defeating Andy Murray in the final.

  1. The 2014 Wimbledon Final: Djokovic Wins 6–7 (7–9), 6–4, 7–6 (7–4), 5–7, 6–4

As with the two finest matches between Federer and Nadal at the Majors, the two finest matches between Federer and Djokovic at the Majors are first and second among equals, standing apart even from their other great encounters. Unfortunately for Federer, whereas he split the top two encounters with Nadal (winning the 2017 Australian Open final after losing the 2008 Wimbledon final), he lost both of his finest matches with Djokovic, as the Serb simply willed himself to win or, perhaps more accurately, refused to lose. It was thought that their 2014 Wimbledon final, which went to five sets, including two tie-breaks, could not be topped, but that was until the final part of their hat-trick of Wimbledon finals in 2019.

1.The 2019 Wimbledon Men’s Final: Djokovic Wins 7–6 (7–5), 1–6, 7–6 (7–4), 4–6, 13–12 (7–3)

It is a savage irony of sport that even the greatest victors, a category that Roger Federer undoubtedly belongs in, are often remembered more for their greatest defeats rather than for their greatest triumphs. Indeed, Federer arguably exemplifies that process. He may have won a record eight Wimbledon titles (a record that Djokovic will be trying to match next year and then beat the year after, but his two most memorable Wimbledon finals are probably two that he lost: first, to Nadal in 2008, in what is widely regarded as the greatest tennis match ever played; and, secondly, to Djokovic in 2019, in what is the longest ever Wimbledon final, at nearly five hours.

Of course Federer’s sense of agony about the 2019 final is only exacerbated by the fact that he held two match-points when Djokovic was serving at 7-8 down in the fifth set. Had Federer himself been serving at that juncture, he might have seen the match out, but Djokovic held on, despite seemingly the entire tennis world (let alone the entire Centre Court crowd) appearing to be on Federer’s side. Eventually, he won the match in a fifth-set tie-break, 13-12.

Given that Wimbledon has now followed the lead of the other Majors and gone to a fifth-set tiebreak at 6-6 rather than at 12-12, there will never again be another 25-game thriller in the fifth set of a Wimbledon men’s final. That incredible statistic is a testament to the extraordinary three-Final rivalry that Federer and Djokovic enjoyed at Wimbledon between 2014 and 2019. However, given that Federer lost each one of those finals, making such statistical history will be of very little consolation.

Next time: in the fourth and final part of “The Trivalry” series, Martin looks at the Nadal-Djokovic rivalry, which will continue after Federer’s retirement and which may ultimately come to be regarded as the greatest individual rivalry within the “Trivalry”.

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