LONDON -- More than four hours into an epic Wimbledon championship match on Centre Court that seemed to captivate the entire world, Roger Federer had a chance to clinch the victory over Novak Djokovic. Federer had taken an 8-7 lead in the fifth set and was serving at 40-15.
It looked as if the 37-year-old was about to take home his record-extending ninth Wimbledon trophy -- and 21st Grand Slam title. The crowd could ostensibly feel it and cheered, "Let's go, Roger" -- with increasing enthusiasm each time -- before being hushed as he bounced the ball, trying to focus. There didn't seem to be a single phone camera in the stadium not pointed his way, ready to capture the historic moment.
But Djokovic had an answer.
And then another one, staving off two consecutive match points.
There were another 40 or so minutes of tennis to be played, but Federer never got closer than he had at that moment. He fought and scraped and leveled the rest of the way but ultimately lost by a 7-6 (5), 1-6, 7-6 (4), 4-6, 13-12 (3) final score.
Federer had been so very close and debatably was the better player for almost all of the match -- notching 14 more points in total than his opponent -- but he wasn't the best when it mattered most. After 4 hours, 57 minutes -- the longest final in Wimbledon history -- Federer would go home without the trophy he so desperately hoped to be reunited with. He looked despondent in his chair as Djokovic, 32, fell to his knees on the court and ate a clump of grass in celebration.
"I will try to forget this final, but it was a great match," Federer said immediately after its end, while holding the runner-up plate. "It was long and had everything. I had my chances, but so did he. I have to be happy with my performance. But Novak, congratulations, that was crazy.
"I hope I give some other people a chance to believe around the world. I gave it all I had and I can still stand. I hope the same can be said for all the other 37-year-olds. My children won't be excited with the plate; they would be more excited with that golden thing. But it is all good -- back to being a dad and a husband."
Federer tried his best to mask his disappointment, but it was clear -- this one hurt. And he knows what that's like. In 2008, he fell to Rafael Nadal in a legendary clash on Centre Court that is now the second-longest final in tournament history. Federer is no stranger to the feeling of devastation that follows. But that was many years ago now, relatively early in his storied career, and he knew then -- at age 26 -- that he would have many more chances to win Slams.
The same can't quite be said anymore. Federer was bidding to become the oldest Grand Slam winner of all time; and while he still is ranked No. 3 in the world and very much feared by his peers, Father Time, as they say, is undefeated. The truth is, he can't play forever -- no matter how much the sport or his fans would like him to.
He won his most recent Slam title at the Australian Open in 2018. This was Federer's first major final since that victory. He faced an uncharacteristic early exit last year at the All England Club, losing to Kevin Anderson 13-11 in the fifth set in the quarterfinals as the defending champion.
Federer is beloved by the London crowd, and the fans gasped and stood and screamed and reacted to everything he did Sunday as if each point was the decider. It seemed as if everything was on his side for a large portion of the match.
He lost the first set in a tiebreak, despite being two points away from winning it on seven different occasions. But then he came roaring back in the second -- leaving Djokovic appearing baffled by Federer's powerful display. The sun came out for the first time in the previously overcast day as Federer was finalizing the set.
Federer was one point away from winning the third set but faltered, again losing in a tiebreaker. But he took control in the fourth, forcing the final set. He went down a break but rallied back. It looked as if there would be a storybook ending for the fortnight. But Djokovic refused to back down.
"I just told myself before the match, 'You know, I'm going to try to switch off as much as I can from what is happening around us and just be there, be present,'" Djokovic said. "I thought I could have played better. But at the same time, one thing that probably allowed me to come back and save match points and win this match was the mental stability in those moments.
"I guess that all of these things combined result in a courageous effort. There's not a specific formula to find courage, at least from my perspective. You can go all out and just close your eyes and just hit the ball as hard as you can, you can call that courage. But I wouldn't necessarily call it courage in some particular situations."
"You need to be constantly playing well throughout five hours if you want to win a match like this," Djokovic continued. "I guess there is an endurance part. But I think there is always this self-belief. You have to keep reminding yourself that you're there for a reason and that you are better than the other guy."
Djokovic never allowed Federer to get any closer to his goal. Even when getting booed by the crowd down the stretch for questioning a call, Djokovic stayed the course and simply was able to win a few more points in the final tiebreaker and take home his 16th Grand Slam trophy -- now just four behind Federer's record haul.
During that final tiebreaker, after Federer made it all even at 12 games apiece in the fifth set, Djokovic jumped out to a commanding lead, as if he was ready once and for all for this match to be over. Federer kept fighting, but it wasn't enough. It ended when Federer hit a wild shot into the air. For a moment, the crowd seemed stunned into complete silence.
After almost five hours, the match had ended so anticlimactically. There appeared to be more than a few tears in the upper sections of fans. An "I still love you, Roger" yell was heard before the applause finally began for the valiant effort from both players. Federer sat motionless in his chair after a brief embrace and exchange of words with Djokovic.
The tennis world was quick to react, as often happens, and there seems to already be discussion and debate about whether the Swiss star will ever have a chance to win another Slam. But he seemed unconcerned with the speculation when talking to media after the loss. He said he'll do what he always does and move on.
"[It's] similar to getting broken when serving for the match: Take it on your chin, you move on," Federer said. "You try to forget, try to take the good things out of this match. There's just tons of it.
"Like similar to '08, maybe, I will look back at it and think, 'Well, it's not that bad after all.' For now it hurts, and it should, like every loss does here at Wimbledon. I think it's a mindset. I'm very strong at being able to move on because I don't want to be depressed about actually an amazing tennis match."