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A duel with no secrets but does Roger Federer have greater shock potential?

There are no secrets between Roger Federer and Novak Djokovic, nothing new to learn after 47 matches staring at each other across the net, 15 of them in slams, nothing to fear except the fear of embarrassment.

So when they meet at these championships for the third time, in the 52nd Wimbledon final of the Open era, any surprises will likely arrive when one or the other, in desperate circumstances, ignores all that accumulated knowledge and tries something that maybe makes no tennis sense but might change the course of the match. The conundrum is: who has the greater capacity to deliver it? Which one of these exceptional champions can shock the other with a move or a strategy the other has not seen before?

Professional athletes are notoriously wary of change, especially if they are 37 years old and have been playing at or near the summit of their sport for two decades. But Federer showed towards the end of his curious collapse in the second set of his semi-final against Rafael Nadal that he is not shackled by convention.

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As Centre Court patrons waited for their temporarily bamboozled hero to rise from his afternoon slumber on a warm and gently breezed afternoon, Federer charged Nadal’s second serve. For a second it looked as if his half-volley return, picked up on the run as he moved into the service box, might slide past the Spaniard, who was also advancing on the net. But the ball billowed the net and the moment was gone.

Yet that is how Federer thinks: all miracles are possible. And, as he gets closer to the dreaded day when he has to give up the game he loves, the chances to try the outrageous dwindle. He might need to experiment more than once against Djokovic, whose game has dipped only briefly all fortnight, in the second set against Roberto Bautista Agut.

Five years younger than Federer, the world No 1 is the logical favourite but they start again here. It will not matter to either of them that Federer won their 2012 semi-final here in four sets and went on to beat Andy Murray for the title. Nor will Djokovic’s victories in the finals of 2014 (an outstanding five-setter) and 2015 count for anything as they try to solve second-by-second riddles.

Their only concerns will be the energy levels they bring to the last match of the draw, the soundness of their game and their desire to win. On these counts and several others there is little between them.

“It’s the same like going into a Rafa match,” Federer said. “I think the moment you’ve played somebody probably more than 15 times, especially in recent years also a few times, there’s not that much more left out there. I’m excited about the game against Novak. We’ve played each other so, so much. I don’t mind that. I think it’s more of a clear game plan. Especially we had a great match against each other in Paris just recently. I hope we can back it up from there.”

Time waits for no man – or woman, as Serena Williams discovered when Simona Halep beat the 37-year-old American 6-2, 6-2 in 56 minutes in Saturday’s final. She is seven weeks younger than Federer. Each hour on court for both of them seems longer than it once did.

Djokovic has spent just over 13 hours on court, no match longer than the three it took him to overcome Hubert Hurkacz in the third round, while Federer has taken 12 hours and 25 minutes to beat his six opponents, with Nadal extending him longest at just over three hours on Friday.

As for the quality of their tennis, they are almost inseparable. Federer has hit 56 aces, Djokovic 49 (but with 20 double faults to nine). Opponents of each have failed to return first serves at the same number: 42%, although Federer’s second serve has been slightly more effective. Federer has got 66% of his first serves in, winning 352 of 536, Djokovic 65% (355 from 545). And so it goes. Federer has saved 17 of 22 break points, Djokovic 18 of 24. Federer has won 82 % of serves overall (91 of 96), Djokovic 93% (86 of 92).

But these are mere numbers. What will lift the winner over the line, with so many other factors equal, will be how much they want it. Federer’s incentive is the rapidly diminishing time he has left in the game and the chance to close the gap on Djokovic in their career score, which favours the Serb 25-22, while also edging away from him in total majors: 20 to 15 at the moment, with Nadal lurking on 18.

They will say that such things do not concern them. They do. Their three-cornered rivalry is what has helped make them great. Without each other, that intangible drive to keep winning might not burn so brightly. As long as the others are playing, none will want to leave the stage – although they cannot all depart together.

Djokovic is secure at the top of the rankings, whatever the result, but victory would lift Federer above Nadal to No 2, which was a sore point for the Spaniard when the Wimbledon seedings were announced and he was relegated to No 3. Had the All England Club left Nadal at No 2, however, it is likely he would have played Djokovic in the semi-finals. There are some giants of the game that are unavoidable; it is usually only the order in which they are confronted that changes.

Just one player has ever beaten Nadal and Djokovic at the same major title: Stan Wawrinka, when he got past the Serb in the quarter-finals of the 2014 Australian Open on his way to beating the Spaniard in the final. That is the size of Federer’s challenge.

And the numbers that matter on Sunday will be posted next to their names.

It will be a mild surprise if they do not show Djokovic as the winner of his 72nd match here in his sixth final and the owner of his fifth title.

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