Wimbledon, England: There was a telltale moment early in the second set of the men's Wimbledon final when Novak Djokovic, somehow trailing in a match he appeared to be dominating and in disbelief of a net-cord winner by Roger Federer, clasped his hands and looked to the sky for mercy.
Heaven wasn't listening. Earth, too, was not sympathetic. With the exception of those in his box and a few scattered souls around Centre Court, seemingly everyone had cast Djokovic as the valiant supporting actor - if not an actual villain - in what was supposed to be the Hollywood ending to Wimbledon 2014. (Also read: Thank you Roger for letting me win, says Djokovic)
Not a vocational ending for Federer, mind you, who made sure to tell the crowd, "See you next year," before walking off a 6-7 (7), 6-4, 7-6 (4), 5-7, 6-4 loser to Djokovic in a tense 3-hour-56-minute match that washed away the aftertaste of Saturday's lopsided women's final. (Highlights)
Had he won, with his 33rd birthday a month away, Federer would have become the oldest Wimbledon champion of the Open era. Had he done it after trailing by 5-2 in the fourth set and facing match point, it would have been - beyond the bookend Grand Slam trophy to define the twilight of his career - the stuff of legend.
Federer was born on the eighth day of the eighth month in 1981, just more evidence for the tennis world - and Djokovic, as he appeared to battle fate along with Federer - to believe that the great Swiss champion would ultimately win his record eighth Wimbledon and, yes, his 18th career Grand Slam title.
Djokovic is not an unlikable guy, far from it, even if his idea of a good time is hanging around in a hyperbaric chamber (for conditioning purposes). Like Federer, he'd had his share of Grand Slam hardship in recent years, losing five of his previous six finals.
Against Federer, on this particular stage, that wasn't going to be enough to earn him much more than the polite Centre Court decorum, especially with Federer's 4-year-old twin daughters, Myla and Charlene, perched on the laps of his wife, Mirka, and mother, Lynette.
Federer's family is royalty at Wimbledon, where he won the junior boys' title in 1998. Think about that. In a sport that can burn people out faster than Wall Street, here was Federer, 16 years later, a stroke here or there away from doing it again.
After allowing Federer to stagger into a first-set tiebreaker and managing to lose it, Djokovic righted himself in the second and third sets and for much of the fourth. He was destroying Federer with his service games, winning most of them at love or 15.
Djokovic's serve is not the biggest in tennis, and Federer has had plenty of experience returning it in 34 previous matches. But, as Federer said: "You know, I think it's one thing not to break. That can happen if the other guy plays well in the big moments and all that stuff. But it was really not creating enough opportunities to put Novak under pressure, you know?" In other words, he wasn't getting so much as a sniff. And suddenly, as if he had just flipped a switch, Federer was spraying winners all over against Djokovic's serve, enjoying break-fest at Wimbledon three times in the fourth set, and winning five straight games to even the match and send Djokovic off to a bathroom timeout to ponder the awful possibilities.
Boris Becker, his coach, later recalled, "We were all dying out there." Around Centre Court, and probably the viewing world, there had to be a feeling that it was really going to happen for Federer - just how his eventual documentarian would want it.
Even pragmatic tennis minds paid for their analysis were inclined to believe that Djokovic had gotten an ethereal message from an authority much higher than the umpire's chair.
"He should have won in three sets, and then when he blew the fourth, I thought he was done," Martina Navratilova said. "He was hanging his head, dragging his leg."
Said Patrick McEnroe: "He could have folded, and it wouldn't have shocked you. That's why he took a bathroom break, an injury timeout - he was doing whatever he could to stay in the moment. Because if he looked at the bigger picture, which is what we all do, he could have easily said, 'It's not meant to be.'"
For his part, Djokovic said, "These are the critical moments a tennis player goes through in his own mind." But what could he possibly have been thinking when Federer saved three more break points - 11 of 15 overall - in the eighth game of the fifth set, and had the audacity to come in behind a 98 mph second serve on the last one?
On what had been a partly cloudy day, the evening sun was shining over Centre Court now, seemingly brighter on Federer. But then he put a step-back overhead into the net at 15-all in the ninth game. Djokovic served it out, broke Federer at 15 and was soon heaving with emotion as he held onto the trophy.
In a departure from past painful losses, Federer shed no tears. Instead, he said: "It's even more memorable when I see my kids there with my wife and everything. That's what touched me the most, to be quite honest. The disappointment of the match itself went pretty quickly."
He joined them soon enough, holding hands with his daughters, who wore matching floral dresses, as they entered the outdoor players' lounge to greet friends, while photographers snapped happily away.
Federer, also the father of 3-month-old twin sons, Leo and Lennart, is a long way from his junior title. He is a private man with a public life who wants it to be only about the tennis.
Is he playing on in pursuit of a storybook ending?
If he is, it is probably with the understanding that it may never actually happen, and that there is nevertheless a whole lot more to life.
© 2014 New York Times News Service