After going the distance in two gruelling matches with Roger Federer and then John Isner, Kevin Anderson was spent by the time he reached the final against Novak Djokovic. Admirably he found the juice to get the third set to a tie-break that could have prolonged the match, but the Serb walked away with the expected grand slam win, his breakthrough victory on the Tour, signalling everyone that the Novak Djokovic of old was back.
How Kevin Anderson was able to find any motivation to make a better match of it in the third set is inspiring. After all, he had just played 67 games in the quarterfinal with Roger Federer, winning the final set 13-11, only to turn around to play a 99-game semi against Isner, finally prevailing after 50 games in the last set alone, 26-24, in the longest semi played at Wimbledon.
But what would it have been if Federer had converted his match point in the third set of the Anderson quarter? How different things might have turned out. Instead of the hoped-for reprisal of the 2008 Federer-Nadal final, we could have been witnessing a Federer-Djokovic one.
Roger Federer was playing ruthless, exquisite tennis all Wimbledon long until his mental hiccup in that crucial third set in the quarter, that went on to affect him throughout the rest of the match against Anderson. A simple point was all it took to change the tenor of the tournament on the men’s side. In the end, the resurgence of #fedal took a backseat to the new comeback kid, Nole Djokovic, who has now crashed their comeback party in a most definitive way.
But what if Djokovic had faced Federer in the final? What a tantalizing prospect that would have been. This assumes that Federer would have won the Isner semi. Considering that Fed had an even more favourable head-to-head than Anderson against the American, it’s very possible he would have needed less to exert a win over than the South African did in a matchup with two such similar tall, big servers. The Swiss would have assuredly brought a different approach to the contest and even though the six foot 10 Isner likely would have battled hard to make the finals, Fed’s record against the 33-year-old and grass court prowess would have probably placed him squarely into the finals, pitting him against an old rival.
Who would have won that final? Djokovic or Federer? The 31-year-old owns the head-to-head over the 36-year-old Swiss, but only by one in their 45 meetings. More importantly, the Serb won those matchups more recently, the last two times, in 2016 and 2015, at the tail end of Djokovic’s dominant run. The last three grand slam finals went to the 13-time slam champ, the U.S. Open and Wimbledon finals in 2015, following Wimbledon the previous year. Going with those odds, Nole has the upper hand over the 20-time slam winner.
Djokovic also beat Rafael Nadal in the semis to make the final, in a year where the Spaniard was playing some of his best tennis—having dominated all clay season and winning his 11th French Open. The win over Rafa was huge and really gave Nole major confidence going into the final.
But let’s look at Djokovic’s and Federer’s performance throughout this year’s Wimbledon. Djokovic faced one four-setter against Kyle Edmund before another four-set victory in the quarters against Kei Nishikori. Contrast that to Fed’s easy-breezy run at Wimbledon before hitting the Anderson wall in the quarters, without dropping a set and clocking in 90+ percentages on his first serves.
What it all adds up to is a missed opportunity to witness how Djokovic and Federer would have handled each other at this stage in their comeback periods. Perhaps Federer would have been in better shape than Anderson if he hadn’t chocked the third set in the quarters and had continued to play in dominant fashion over Isner in the semis. Perhaps he would have been a better match for Nole in the finals.
We will never know, but what an intriguing contest it would have been between two great rivals and legends if the stars had aligned for their rematch.
Djokovic was on fire after his Nadal match and this Wimbledon was all about his own comeback story. But tennis fans really missed what would have been a tennis final for the ages.