Novak Djokovic celebrates championship point after claiming his second straight Wimbledon title. (Clive Brunskill/Getty Images)

By Liz Clarke in Wimbledon, England

WIMBLEDON, England — Novak Djokovic may not have been the better player from first ball to last in Sunday’s Wimbledon final.

But he produced nerves of steel when it mattered most, blasting the shots, avoiding the costly errors and saving the two match points required to defeat 37-year-old Roger Federer, who had both artistry and the Centre Court crowd on his side in pursuit of a 21st major title.

It was Djokovic’s trophy to raise at the end of a four-hour, 57-minute, exceptionally contested match. With his 7-6 (5), 1-6, 7-6 (4), 4-6, 13-12 (3) victory, Djokovic claimed his fifth Wimbledon championship and the 16th major of his career to pull within two of Rafael Nadal’s mark and four of Federer’s all-time mark, which, for now, is paused at 20.

It was Wimbledon’s first singles championship settled under the tournament’s new fifth-set format, instituted to prevent soul-sapping marathons like the three-day affair between John Isner and Nicolas Mahut, which was dragged on until 70-68. And it was the longest final in Wimbledon history.

Already the world No. 1, the 32-year-old Djokovic has now won four of the last five majors, closing quickly on the standard of perfection Federer has set in his two-decade pro career.

Djokovic calmly strode to the net when a miss-hit by Federer ended the tiebreak, and the two exchanged pats on the back.

Sunday’s final was the 48th career meeting between the two. And it was fitting that Wimbledon’s final came down to them, the field of 128 ultimately narrowed to the tournament’s No. 1 (Djokovic) and No. 2 (Federer) seeds.

Moreover, they owned more Wimbledon singles titles than any other active male competitor: Federer, an eight-time champion; Djokovic, the four-time and defending champion.

They were greeted by a standing ovation and rousing cheers when Djokovic led Federer onto Centre Court. Looking on from the front row of the Royal Box were the Duke and Duchess of Cambridge, with 80-year-old Rod Laver, the inspiration for both players, just behind, along with former Wimbledon champions Stefan Edberg, John Newcombe, Manuel Santana and Stan Smith.

To have a chance, most prognosticators said, the 37-year-old Federer needed to win the opening set.

The proceedings veered from that script.

Federer took the higher risk approach in a first set of exceptional shot-making and touch. There was scarcely a grass-blade’s difference between them in quality, so it came down to a tiebreaker that Djokovic claimed.

If Federer was frustrated by 58 minutes of wasted effort in dropping the opening set, he redirected it magnificently, bolting to a 4-0 lead in the second set while Djokovic took a mental walkabout, much as he had in Friday’s semifinal after claiming the opening set before winning in four. With the Serb seemingly disengaged, Federer needed just 25 minutes to level the match by claiming the second set.

The match unfolded in utter silence from the competitors. There wasn’t a grunt, groan or shout of “C’mon!” between them — whether the restraint reflected their respect for one another, for their sport’s most hallowed venue or was a tactical decision to devote their energy into each point.

The third set was as tightly contested as the first.

Once again, a tiebreak was required to settle it. The Serb jumped out to a 4-1 lead and held on to take a two-sets-to-one lead.

The physical and psychological toll was surely profound on Federer, who found himself staring at a two-sets-to-one deficit at the two hour, 15-minute mark.

Instead of fading in the fourth set, Federer broke Djokovic’s serve in the third game and held his own to take a 4-2 lead that thrilled the crowd, which erupted in cheers for the Swiss, the prospect of a fifth set or both.

The crowd got its wish.

And Federer and Djokovic produced a fifth set that was worth the price of admission.

Djokovic was first to nudge ahead, 4-2, after breaking Federer’s serve for just the second time in the match.

When Federer immediately broke back, even guests in the Royal Box dropped any pretense of impartiality, cheering the fight still left in the Swiss.

Djokovic had his share of fight, too. At risk of losing his serve at 5-5, which would have essentially gift-wrapped the victory for the Swiss, Djokovic lunged full-out to stab back a winning volley. Neither budged.

So at 6-6, the match just shy of the four-hour mark, they played on for the two-game lead required to win in the fifth set.

The stadium erupted when Federer got the service break he needed by toying with the pace and trajectory of his shots and coaxing Djokovic into errors.

Djokovic roared back, saving two match points to draw even again, at 8-8.

And on they played.

Match highlights

by Ava Wallace in Washington

Game, set, match: Djokovic wins, 7-6 (7-5), 1-6, 7-6 (7-4), 4-6, 13-12 (7-3)

In an epic five-set match that lasted just shy of five hours, Djokovic repeated to win his fifth Wimbledon title and 16th singles title at a Grand Slam event. It’s the second time he’s won back-to-back Wimbledon titles in his career, following 2014-15, and he made history in the meantime: This was the first fifth-set tiebreak ever played at Wimbledon.

Fifth set: Tied at 12-12

We’re headed for a tiebreak, the first that’ll ever be played in a fifth-set championship at Wimbledon.

Fifth set: Tied 6-6

Let’s review the fifth-set tiebreak rule at Wimbledon, since it’s different at every major. At the All-England Club, players do a regular tiebreaker when the match reaches 12-all in the fifth set. Djokovic and Federer just reached the four-hour mark in this match. Stay hydrated, everybody.

Fifth set: Federer breaks back, Djokovic leads 4-3

This is getting tense, and the Wimbledon crowd has completely (and loudly) gotten in Federer’s corner. The Swiss broke back to stay in this match, but Djokovic’s return game is staying strong.

Fifth set: Djokovic takes a 4-2 lead

Djokovic played an excellent passing shot that Federer’s backhand couldn’t quite reach and he’s taken the first break of this fifth sets. Though Federer’s won more points this match, Djokovic is winning when it counts. A fun aside: this is just the sixth Wimbledon men’s final this century to have gone five sets, and Djokovic is two games from victory.

Fourth set: Federer wins, 6-4

Federer’s not done yet. The 37-year-old evened things at two sets all, fending off his first break points of the match along the way. The first he faced, he won by triumphing in a 35-shot rally, the longest of the match. With Federer’s serve looking impeccable and Djokovic’s defending in peak form, this fifth set should be fun.

Fourth set: Federer leads 5-2

Wimbledon, the place for summer’s hottest roller coasters. Credit Federer’s serve against the game’s best returner for this one — he hasn’t faced a single break point all match, then held at love to take a 4-2 lead and broke Djokovic again. It seemed after the third that the defending champion had this thing all wrapped up, but Federer says not so fast.

Third set: Djokovic takes a two sets to one lead

The defending champ won the third set 7-6 (7-4) in another tiebreak by throwing the kitchen sink at Federer, who was just one iota worse despite saving a few set points with brilliant serving. But it wasn’t the Swiss’s serving that was the problem — his backhand betrayed him and his forehand wasn’t quite there. Djokovic has never lost to the Swiss champion up two sets to one, and Federer may not get many more chances to swing the match. That was a big missed opportunity.

Third set: Even at 4-4

The only good thing about that second set for Djokovic was that it was over quickly, and the defending champ seems to have regrouped. Djokovic has gotten his game back on track, and it feels a little bit like the first two sets were something of a wash. He’s back to his good defending and won the longest rally of this match — a 21-shot marathon — in the fourth set. In the set’s eighth game, he held at 40-15.

Second set: Federer wins 6-1 to even the match

Alright, then. Federer made Djokovic run in that set, and Djokovic couldn’t keep up. That’s one of the worst sets the Serb has ever played against Federer — according to the Times of London’s tennis correspondent Stu Fraser, it’s the fewest games he’s won in a set against Federer since 2012. Now it’s Federer’s task to not lose that momentum.

Second set: Djokovic gets on the board, Federer leads 4-1

What is it with these weird second sets? Federer had an uncharacteristic one in his semifinal against Rafael Nadal, and now Djokovic has all but gone away after winning the first set tiebreak, with no apparent physical ailments. He finally made an appearance in the fifth game of the set.

Second set: Federer takes a 2-0 lead

Federer got the match’s first service break coming out of the tiebreak then consolidated for a 2-0 lead. He had to do something to get the momentum swinging his way after losing that first set — Djokovic is 63-1 in majors after winning the first, and 18-1 against Federer. Tough odds.

First set: Djokovic wins in a tiebreak, 7-6 (7-5)

After 12 straight holds of service, Federer sent a rare backhand wide and Djokovic took the first set in a tiebreak. It was the pair’s 25th tiebreak in their career meetings and Djokovic now owns the edge, 13-12, in addition to a one-set lead. Down 5-3 in the tiebreak, he won the final four points to get ahead.

First set: Even at 3-3

Both players held serve in the opening games of this first set of their 48th meeting, so let’s talk about who’s watching in the Royal Box.

The Duchess of Cambridge is back for round two (she’s a royal patron of the All England Club and besides that a big tennis fan), this time with her husband William, Duke of Cambridge. Amazon founder Jeff Bezos is up there as well, along with a host of past Wimbledon champions including Rod Laver, Stefan Edberg and Chris Evert. Actors Benedict Cumberbatch and Edward Norton are present, too.

Read more:

Playing ‘the best match of my life,’ Simona Halep dominates Serena Williams for Wimbledon title

Serena Williams finds her path to history narrowing to a tightrope

Shining brighter in twilight, Federer downs Nadal, and next faces Djokovic

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