By HOWARD FENDRICH
WIMBLEDON, England (AP) — Novak Djokovic never has been this close to Roger Federer and Rafael Nadal in the Grand Slam trophy count.
Given the way Djokovic edged Federer in a thrilling Wimbledon final for his fourth championship at the past five major tournaments, there is little reason to think the 32-year-old Serb doesn’t have a realistic shot at catching his two great rivals at the top of tennis.
Federer owns the men’s record of 20 Slams, Nadal has 18, Djokovic 16.
The chase is really and truly on now.
“For him, it’s the goal, absolutely,” said Djokovic’s coach, Marian Vajda.
Djokovic’s 7-6 (5), 1-6, 7-6 (4), 4-6, 13-12 (3) victory Sunday offered some insight about what the future might hold and what his place in the hierarchy eventually could become.
At 4 hours, 57 minutes, it was the longest Wimbledon final in history.
More remarkably, Djokovic became the first man since 1948 to win the title at the All England Club after facing championship points; Federer was on the verge of winning while serving at 8-7, 40-15 in the fifth set.
But Djokovic took the next two points and, eventually, was better in the closing tiebreaker, instituted at 12-all in deciding sets at Wimbledon for the first time this year.
If the consensus is that Federer’s excellence is defined by the word “elegance,” and Nadal’s by “doggedness,” then Djokovic’s might be best distilled to “clutchness.”
As Sunday’s match stretched into the evening, one element of their respective past performances at Wimbledon seemed particular relevant: Djokovic is now 8-1 in five-setters there; Federer 7-7. Against each other? Djokovic is 4-0.
Turned out the words spoken by eight-time Wimbledon champion Federer two days before the final were rather prescient: “It comes very much down to who’s better on the day, who’s in a better mental place, who’s got more energy left, who’s tougher when it really comes to the crunch.”
Federer lost despite winning more total points, 218-204, and dominating just about every other significant statistic, too: aces (25-10), service breaks (7-3), winners (94-54) and so on.
The key: Djokovic won all three tiebreakers, the sort of can’t-take-a-point-off segment of a match that is as much dependent on how capable a player is of steeling oneself as it is about this or that particular stroke.
In the moments that meant the most, when the sets were at stake, when the outcome was in the balance, Djokovic was superior.
Seven times, Federer was two points away from taking the opening set. Djokovic didn’t allow it. Federer was one point from seizing the third. Again, Djokovic prevented it.
And then, just like when he erased two match points each time in the 2010 and 2011 U.S. Open semifinals, Djokovic came back from the brink to win.
“A mental battle, more than anything else,” Vajda said. “It was all about focus there at the end.”
For years, in part because he zoomed past Pete Sampras’ old mark of 14 Grand Slam titles, Federer was considered by many to be the greatest male tennis player in history. Then Nadal earned his supporters and created a debate, not so much by accumulating his own impressive collection of trophies, but by repeatedly getting the better of Federer, including beating him in the epic 2008 Wimbledon final.
Djokovic has strengthened his case for being part of the conversation. Younger than both men — Nadal is 33; Federer turns 38 on Aug. 8 — he is gaining on them in Slams, is the only member of the trio to have won four consecutive majors and holds an edge in the head-to-head series with each.
Against Nadal, he is 28-26.
Against Federer, he is 26-22 overall, 10-6 at majors and 3-1 at Wimbledon, including 3-0 in finals at the grass-court tournament.
Those, though, aren’t the numbers people generally look at when trying to decide which of the Big Three deserves to be listed first.
Djokovic, No. 1 in the ATP rankings at the moment, knows what category matters the most to many.
“Those two guys (are) probably one of the biggest reasons I still compete at this level. The fact that they made history (in) this sport motivates me as well, inspires me to try to do what they have done, what they’ve achieved, and even more,” said Djokovic, who has won 33 of his past 34 matches at majors.
“Whether I’m going to be able to do it or not,” he added, “I don’t know.”
Neither do we. But it sure should be fun watching him try.
Howard Fendrich has covered Grand Slam tennis for The Associated Press since 2000. This was his 18th Wimbledon. You can write to him at email@example.com or follow him on Twitter at http://twitter.com/HowardFendrich
Associated Press writer Mattias Karen contributed to this report.