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Saturday, July 5, 2014
Baseline Buzz: Federer's best chance

By Matt Wilansky and Carl Bialik
ESPN.com

LONDON -- Tennis is a delicate balance of heart and head.

You can't be a professional, never mind a multi-Slam winner, without some serious fortitude coming from somewhere deep inside.

Fortunately for Novak Djokovic, he is a living, breathing example of both. And that's a good thing, given that he's navigated his way to the Wimbledon final playing with anything but his A-game.

Novak Djokovic
Novak Djokovic has spent a lot of time on the grass, but he is still the game's foremost fighter.

Take for instance the Serb's last match, a queasy 3-hour, 2-minute slip-fest against Grigor Dimitrov. Djokovic appeared frustrated and spent trying to fend off a Bulgarian superstar in the making. But say what you will, the top seed figured it out. And in the end, this is a bottom-line-business sport, and the bottom line is that Djokovic won.

So yes, Djokovic gets five stars for the aplomb he's showed, but is that going to be enough to take down an in-form Roger Federer when the two meet for the Wimbledon crown Sunday?

ESPN.com tennis editor Matt Wilansky and FiveThirtyEight's Carl Bialik spend a few moments kicking around their thoughts with some more Baseline Buzz banter.

Matt Wilansky: The first thing I have to say is that this final is nearly as juicy as they come. Say what you will about the Big Four. Rafael Nadal and Djokovic might be the most competitive rivalry in tennis, perhaps ever, but when Federer is around, a few more people are paying attention. The good news for you Fedaholics is that the seven-time Wimbledon champ is playing some real crisp ball; he's dropped serve only one time and, amazingly, has spent five fewer hours on court than Djokovic. Even though the Serb is nearly six years younger, that's still a massive advantage for Federer.

Carl Bialik: Agreed, advantage, Federer, in the rest department. The lack of play on Middle Sunday, which Djokovic decried this past week for its disruptive potential, appeared to hurt Federer, since he'd have to play Tuesday, Wednesday and Friday. He neutralized that obstacle by dropping just one set in the three matches. Djokovic has struggled at times in recent Grand Slam finals when he has had to work harder than his opponent to get there, such as at the French Open, when he lost a set in the semis while Rafa cruised; at the US Open last year, when he needed five sets to get past Stan Wawrinka in the semis and at Wimbledon last year, when Juan Martin del Potro pushed Djokovic to five grueling, thrilling sets. Whether Djokovic lost those subsequent finals because he was tired or because his tough semi signaled that he was the second-best player in the final is unclear. Either way, if Federer and Djokovic play in the final at the same level they've showed so far, then I agree, advantage, Federer. Whom do you think feels more pressure to win, and whom does that help?

Wilansky: Great question, and I was actually thinking about it this morning. My feeling is that Federer's form is both a blessing and a curse. A blessing because he's in a groove and playing the best tennis he has in two years, and a curse because the pendulum has now swung in his favor and more people think he's going to win. Against the Big Four in recent years, Federer has been an underdog, e.g., playing without too much pressure. But here on the Centre Court stage he's owned for 11 years, and considering Djokovic is visibly straining, the Swiss is now just as much a favorite, if not more. I also think there's stress on Federer to add at least another major title, perhaps more, to his résumé because there's this Spanish kid who's quickly creeping up on the all-time Slam record. Rafael Nadal is now only three majors behind Federer, and despite Rafa's grass allergies, he is going to be a serious threat at any event he plays in for the next two years or so.

Roger Federer
Roger Federer has dropped only one set en route to the final.

Bialik: Djokovic also faces enormous pressure after losing in the final of three of the last five majors -- and in heartbreakingly close five-setters at the other two. I've heard talk that this is Federer's last chance to win a major, which would place unimaginable pressure on him, if he believed it. I doubt he does. He'll be No. 3 in the world after this tournament and he's still a good bet to reach the second week at all four Slams. Plus, he's in great physical shape -- possibly better than that of his younger rivals, Nadal and Andy Murray, who each have missed a lot of time in the past couple of years with injuries. This is hardly a story like Pete Sampras' at the 2002 US Open. Sampras had dropped to 17th in the rankings and won just four matches at the year's prior three majors before winning the Open and never playing another match. I'm not saying Federer necessarily will win tomorrow or that he'll definitely win another major -- just that, barring a shock injury, he'll have more chances. In his news conference Friday after being straight-setted by Federer, Milos Raonic pointed out that Federer has already showed himself capable of so much that others aren't. So why doubt that he can also be capable of competing at a high level at an age when most consider retiring?

Wilansky: The funny thing is that we started writing Federer's eulogy more than three years ago when he (gasp!) fell to No. 3 in the world in 2010. But after a precipitous fall to No. 8, he's back and, as you implied, Carl, if he can maintain that ranking, he won't have to face Djokovic or Nadal until at least the semifinals. But I am still of the mindset that this is his last chance to win. The US Open is just too daunting and there are far more dangerous players on hard courts than grass. The lawns are a true specialty surface, far more than even clay. Things are coming too easily for Federer now, but once Toronto and Cincinnati and the rest of the US Open series swing gets underway, he'll have a better sense of his mindset. But all things being equal, I have to go with the better player in Sunday's final, especially since Djokovic can't seem to find his footing. I say Fed in four.

Bialik: Federer's chances definitely won't get much better than tomorrow. Djokovic may be the ultimate all-surface player, but grass is clearly his least comfortable underfoot. Nonetheless, he's probably the player most likely to neutralize Federer's net-attacking advantage so far at this tournament, and he'd love to add a win over Federer -- possibly the best grass-court player ever -- at Wimbledon to his wins over the 17-time major champ at every other Grand Slam tournament. I'll go with Federer, the crowd favorite and Wimbledon maestro, but I expect five sets -- which would be a nice change after four straight men's finals decided in just three or four sets. If both guys show up, there's a chance for drama on par with Federer's consecutive thrillers here in 2008 and 2009.