With a Wimbledon Win, Novak Djokovic Reclaims a Place at the Top
Travel back to the Australian Open in January, where he played with an abbreviated service motion and a fragile, preoperative right elbow encased in a compression sleeve.
Recall Indian Wells, Calif., in March, a month after he had surgery, when the Japanese qualifier Taro Daniel knocked Djokovic out in the first roundof the BNP Paribas Open as his unforced error count hit 58.
Flash to the Off Broadway confines of Interview Room 2 at Roland Garros Stadium last month, when Djokovic batted away questions with a faraway look after his shocking defeat to the Italian outsider Marco Cecchinato in the French Open quarterfinals.
“I don’t know,” Djokovic said, exasperated. “I don’t know if I’m going to play on grass.”
But he made it to Wimbledon just the same, and there he was on Sunday afternoon in another men’s final, gliding and sliding into the corners, playing fast-twitch trump cards to counter nearly every Kevin Anderson move, and reclaiming his central place in the men’s game by winning, 6-2, 6-2, 7-6 (3).
It was his fourth title at Wimbledon, but, more important for one of the game’s supreme talents, it was his first Grand Slam title in more than two years. He now has 13.
“I did not expect to be back in the top shape already here in Wimbledon so quickly,” Djokovic said. “If you asked me after Roland Garros, I would probably maybe doubt that. At the same time, there is a part of me that always believes in my own abilities, believes in my own quality of tennis, what I possess. Whenever I come to the tournament, and a Grand Slam especially, I believe I can have a good opportunity to fight for the trophy.”
Ranked 21st, Djokovic will be back up to just No. 10 on Monday, but it hardly takes a tennis genius to see that the manner in which he prevailed at the All England Club means that he is back in a broader sense.
“I think he underestimated the fact that being away from the game for six months, and then another three months of slowly coming back is a lot harder than he anticipated,” said Boris Becker, his former coach. “I think he thought he’d get his mojo back quicker. But I’m not surprised that he’s winning Wimbledon, and he will win other majors, because he’s one of the greatest of all time. So if he shows the commitment and the heart and does the homework, there’s no reason he shouldn’t keep winning.”
Djokovic is 31, which once would have been considered over-the-hill for a tennis champion, but that timeline has been extended. The previous six major championships had been won by Djokovic’s career-long measuring sticks: Roger Federer, 36, and Rafael Nadal, 32.
Nadal, fresh off his 11th French Open victory, was in rare grass-court form here, but Djokovic defused the considerable danger in a ferociously contested semifinal over two days and five sets under a closed roof that certainly played to Djokovic’s strengths. But the Serbian star still had ample time to think and to crack.
Instead, he held firm, just like the not-so-distant days in 2015 and 2016, when he dominated the sport and became the first man since Rod Laver in 1969 to hold all four major singles titles.
He held firm again versus Anderson, the 6-foot-8 South African who was shaky in the beginning of his first Wimbledon final. But he was much more dangerous in the third set, as Djokovic fought off five set points on his own serve before taking command for good in the tiebreaker.
Djokovic saved all seven break points he faced in the match and converted all four of his break-point opportunities, quite a feat against a server as fearsome as Anderson is.
“He couldn’t find returns in Paris, not in the other tournaments,” Djokovic’s coach, Marian Vajda, said. “But he found them just in time in this tournament.”
hen Stine pointed upward: “Now, he’s back like this. I saw Marian at the French, and he was practically leading Novak around by the nose and telling him, ‘This is what you’re doing.’ And Novak was obviously listening to him, and this is obviously the result now. Novak played great.”
Indeed he did: redirecting power or generating it on his own; winning sliced backhand duels; slapping passing shot winners off perfectly acceptable Anderson approaches.
Both men had good reason to be bone weary. Anderson, who upset No. 1 seed Roger Federer in five sets in the quarterfinals after saving a match point, played more games in a singles tournament here than any man in Wimbledon’s long history. He also played the second-longest match in Grand Slam history to defeat John Isner in a 6-hour-36-minute semifinalthat stretched to 26-24 in the fifth set.
That marathon forced Djokovic’s semifinal against Nadal to start late and stretch into a second day, depriving Djokovic of a day of rest before the final.
But he looked sharp and quick from the start, breaking Anderson’s serve in the opening game, just as he did in the second set. He then avoided complications by closing out the victory in straight sets. His reward: his traditional post-Wimbledon victory snack of fresh grass. “I had a double portion this year; I treated myself,” he said.