Quote of the tournament: “If. If. If. Doesn’t exist” – Rafael Nadal, 4 July 2019. The Spaniard had just been asked whether Nick Kyrgios is capable of winning a grand slam if he focuses on tennis and his answer offered a telling insight into the mindset of a champion. Put simply, Nadal doesn’t deal in what ifs and maybes. He deals in cold, hard facts and was in no mood to indulge all the ifs surrounding Kyrgios. If. If. If. Doesn’t exist. The contempt flies off the screen, doesn’t it?
And this is the truth before today’s men’s singles final at Wimbledon. Ultimately we know that the last point is all that matters – but we all have ideas about the journey Roger Federer and Novak Djokovic will take to get there. So if Federer hits his spots with his serves – like he did against Nadal – he could well win his ninth Wimbledon title. If he goes for the lines in the rallies, he’ll be in with a chance of beating the world No1. If his backhand doesn’t break down, he could overcome the Serbian cyborg for the first time at a grand slam since their 2012 Wimbledon semi-final. And if he holds his nerve in the big moments, this year’s Wimbledon champion could be a father of four who turns 38 next month.
If. If. If. The challenge, however, is putting theory into practice and we have been here before with Federer and Djokovic. I seem to recall the conversation was similar before their final here in 2015. Federer had served magnificently in his semi-final win over Andy Murray, one of the best returners around, but he found it difficult to replicate that level against Djokovic, who was just so good at making his side of the court look smaller, closing the space, forcing errors and taking control with the brilliance and efficiency of his groundstrokes. It all fell rather flat in the end and it seemed Federer simply couldn’t do Djokovic over five sets. It was too much to ask against such a supreme athlete. Djokovic would dominate. He won their 2014 and 2015 Wimbledon finals. He won their 2015 US Open final. He won their 2016 Australian Open semi-final. Each time Federer finished looking as steady on his feet as Woody Harrelson in the Royal Box.
But that was the era of Imperial Novak. The vibe is slightly different now. Federer has been a different player since returning from injury at the start of 2017. The Swiss has gained the edge in his rivalry with Nadal in the last two years, something that seemed unthinkable not so long ago, and now he gets a crack at Djokovic. You just know he’ll be feeling confident before play begins.
All the same it’s still Djokovic who sits at the top of the rankings. Sure, he had a duff period after completing the career slam at the French Open three years ago, but the 32-year-old has been the best player in the world since his restorative win at Wimbledon last year and he starts as a slight favourite here. He hasn’t been at his peak over the past fortnight, but he hasn’t really been pushed and there’s always a sense he can up his level in the biggest matches. He’ll be dying to disappoint all the Fed Fans on Centre Court.
If – if, if, if – Djokovic does then he moves up to 16 grand slam titles, two behind Nadal. If Federer wins he moves up to 21 grand slam titles, three clear of Nadal. As ever history is on the line.
Play begins at: 2pm BST.