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Wimbledon Championships: Mighty rewarding, brutally unforgiving

Karthik Swaminathan

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2019 Wimbledon champion Novak Djokovic of Serbia acknowledges the crowd after his victory over Roger Federer in the final at the All England Club. Photos: Twitter @wimbledon

Simpson’s paradox on display as Novak Djokovic denies Roger Federer in a major final yet again to collect a fifth Wimbledon crown and a 16th Grand Slam.

Toronto: Some quips, as they say, do not age well. And then there are some which do not age well in the ‘right’ way. A little confounded? Let’s take a walk down memory lane.

Following a straight sets loss to a chap called Roger Federer at the 2009 Western & Southern Open, Cincinnati, the beaten man bemoaned, “Yeah, unfortunately I was born in the wrong era. Roger and Rafa [Nadal] are two—maybe one of the best players that ever played this game. Roger for sure is.”

It will soon be exactly a decade since that quote. In August, to be precise.

Our man in focus now has 15 more Grand Slams and 29 more ATP Masters 1000 trophies. He has also notched up 260 (and counting) weeks as the World #1. And in his imperious march to tennis monopoly, there were a couple of seasons like 2015 and 2011. Enough said.

Roger Federer squandered two championship points to settle for the runner-up prize at the All England Club.

From lamenting his fate to lording over the competition. Novak Djokovic is easily the best player of this decade and can already stake his claim to being the greatest of them all. Now, perhaps, you realise why the aphorism referred to in the beginning didn’t age well in the ‘right’ way.

Sunday’s final on Centre Court, SW19, pitted the same protagonists from ‘that’ Cincinnati final nearly ten years ago. While they have indeed faced-off many a time in the interim, this was another of those instances which a 22-year-old Serb might have grieved over.

And why do we say he might have grieved or regretted? Here’s a look at the salient numbers from the match, in other words, statistics that follow every tennis match:

A cursory glance might lead the vagrant onlooker to believe that Federer won yet again. Why not? This was the stadium where the soon-to-be 38 Swiss had tasted success oh-so-many times. And furthermore, the stats seem to indicate he fared better in each metric.

Yet, as it transpired, it was the World No. 1—now a wise 32-year-old—who won Wimbledon’s longest gentlemen’s singles final 7-6 (5), 2–6, 7–6 (5), 4–6, 13–12 (3).

Be it from the data above or with the advantage of hindsight having watched the watch, one could say with a small amount of conviction that Federer could have triumphed in either straight sets or in four sets. Operative word: could.

Despite being down a break in the decider, the second seed levelled and broke again to serve for The Championships. Up 8–7, two unreturned serves saw him reach 40–15 thereby bringing up two match points. And then things went downhill. Eerily, there were parallels to Super Saturday at Flushing Meadows, New York, in 2011 when Djokovic famously hit a first-serve return that was “heard around the world”. Only this time, on the second championship point, it was a stinging cross-court forehand pass against a rather indecisive approach from Federer.

Of course, unlike that U.S. Open semifinal, the match did not end in a blur. Instead, the Swiss fought gamely and—perhaps poetically—the pair played out Wimbledon’s first deciding set tiebreaker at 12–12, a rule-change that came into effect this year.

Federer would win more four more games and 15 more points, overall. He would also have the better percentages in key metrics such as aces, first and second serve points won, return points won, and at the net. And for someone who hasn’t been the best at converting break points, he had the upper-hand there too. Still, he lost.

Duchess of Cambridge Kate Middleton hands over the golden trophy to 2019 champion Novak Djokovic.

In short: Simpson’s paradox. A phenomenon in probability and statistics, in which a trend appears in different sets of data but reverses (or disappears) when these sets are combined. Or in even more lucid terms, losing despite scoring more points.

For all the eloquence one may choose to wax, or the statistical anomalies outed—like it or not—life and sport are influenced a lot by the small print.

You know, an inconspicuous matter of text you see in your insurance papers—or any agreement or contract—that comes back to bite you when you file a claim or check for your rights. Oh of course it’s all about ’em fine print: the proverbial asterisks and Terms & Conditions!

And coming back to our gentlemen of the moment, there definitely was one thing that Djokovic did better than Federer and it cannot be captured by vanilla numbers. ‘Mental game’, which is not quite measurable right away, becomes easier to comprehend when you figure in application at key moments.

In the three sets that decided the match in favour of the defending champion, tie-breakers to be specific, Djokovic won 21 points to Federer’s 12. Even more tellingly, in those 33 points that were played over the three tie-breakers, Federer made 11 unforced errors. And Djokovic? 0. Clutch as it gets. Game, set, and match. Ecstasy for the victor, agony for the vanquished. Sport.

FAST FACTS

  • For the first 2 hours and 47 minutes of Sunday’s final, Djokovic couldn’t even get to break point on Federer’s serve. In the next forty-odd minutes, he would break three times
  • Djokovic improves to 4–0 in deciding set tie-breakers against Federer
  • Djokovic also improves his five-set match record to 30–10, while Federer drops to 30–22; the Serb has never lost to the Swiss when their match has gone to a decider
  • This was Djokovic’s fifth Wimbledon triumph and he becomes the fourth man in the Open Era to win at least five titles at the All England Club, joining Federer (8), Pete Sampras (7) and Bjorn Borg (5)
  • Djokovic became the first man since Robert Falkenburg (1948, d. John Bromwich) to win Wimbledon after saving match point(s)
  • This decade has seen only two five-set Wimbledon finals (2014 and 2019); both involved the same pair, and both resulted in a Djokovic win over Federer
  • Djokovic has now won 10 of the last 12 Grand Slam finals that he has taken part in; both defeats came to Stan Wawrinka
  • Federer has now lost 11 Grand Slam finals, drawing level with Ivan Lendl for most such defeats
  • This was the 22nd time that Federer lost a match where he had match point
  • This was the 36th time that Federer lost a match with Simpson’s paradox in effect; in other words, he won more points overall and was yet resigned to a defeat

 

Karthik Swaminathan is a burgeoning sports analyst, his views on top-tier tennis and cricket events, including Grand Slams and the World Cup, have been featured on live television. Karthik has also been published on leading magazines and web portals such as Wisden, Golf Digest and Sports Illustrated. His other interests include astronomy, darts and anything tech.