WIMBLEDON – If we’ve learned anything over the last few years in tennis, it’s that we write champions off at our own peril.
Maybe it’s because, as mere mortals, as much as we think we know, we have only the most basic grasp of what makes them tick.
We can hardly imagine what drives them to do extraordinary things. And we tend to underestimate how extraordinarily good they are at what they do, because they make the unfathomable look so routine, so often.
So, at the first sign of vulnerability, the first moment they drop from that celestial plane for even a second, we jump to conclusions. They’re done. Who’s next?
But here’s the thing about these rare human beings.
Assuming good health, assuming desire, they never stop having things to prove to others, to themselves. There are always new goals to reach. There are always reasons to compete.
You don’t just stop being a champion. until you’re just too old to do it any more. Champions are tested, with injuries and life getting in the way and crises of confidence. But they never go away.
And so, as it was with Rafael Nadal and Roger Federer before him, it was only a question of time before Novak Djokovic found his mojo again.
A fourth title, and a renaissance
The 31-year-old from Serbia won Wimbledon Sunday afternoon, defeating a running-on-fumes Kevin Anderson 6-2, 6-2, 7-6 to win his 13th major, his fourth title at the All England Club.
Given Anderson’s back-to-back marathon wins in the quarterfinals and semis, given he was in his first Wimbledon final, the South African’s battle was uphill from the start.
But it was always Djokovic’s match to win. Because of his “quality”, as he likes to put it.
Step by step through this packed portion of the tennis season, Djokovic arrived on the final Sunday at Wimbledon more than ready. The hard lessons of the early part of 2018 were learned, and added to the book of knowledge.
His anger at the way he went out of the French Open in the quarterfinals was visible evidence that he not only wanted to get back to top form, he finally now believed he had it inside him to get there.
There were moments, he admitted, when he had doubts.
And if there were a few stumbles along the way – the loss at Queen’s Club was one such bobble – the Wimbledon draw was constructed beautifully for a renaissance run.
In the end, if the worst problem you have going through a draw is a lack of respect in terms of court assignments, or a couple of extra sets to play on a scheduled off day, you’re in good shape.
Even steps, right to the top
When he arrived in SW19, Djokovic had enough winning tennis in him that he was ready to give early-round opponents Tennys Sandgren and Horacio Zeballos beatdowns of vintage Djokovic quality.
And he did.
When he ran into the great British hope in the absence of Andy Murray, No. 21 seed Kyle Edmund, he was battle-tested enough to take on the capable Edmund – and the partisan British crowd.
To draw Kei Nishikori in a Grand Slam quarterfinal on grass, at this stage of the Japanese star’s own return from injury, well, that was just right.
Djokovic’s 13-2 record against Nishikori – the last 12 in a row – wasn’t only a number. It was a mathematical calculation of just how well his game matches up against him.
A semi that was really a final
By the time he reached Nadal, Djokovic could smell the finish line.
And the winning conditions were there. The roof was closed for their late-starting Friday semifinal. Advantage Djokovic. They stopped for the 11 p.m. curfew with Djokovic having just won the third set, leading two sets to one. Advantage Djokovic.
They resumed on Saturday with the roof closed again. Check.
The match itself was of such ludicrously high quality, it was the de facto final. But maybe the fact that it wasn’t actually the final also worked in Djokovic’s favor.
Finals nerves are different nerves. And the Serb’s finals nerves had not been tested. He hadn’t played in a Grand Slam final since the 2016 US Open. He hadn’t won a major since completing the non-calendar Grand Slam with his first career French Open title in 2016.
Djokovic hadn’t played Nadal on grass since he defeated him in the 2011 Wimbledon final – his first Wimbledon title. But he had played him close enough a couple of months ago, in the Rome semis on Nadal’s beloved clay, to know he was in the conversation.
He played brillantly. So did Nadal. In the end, a matter of a few points here and there, Djokovic performed. And he found more belief.
"For the first time in my life, I have someone screaming daddy, daddy!"
— Wimbledon (@Wimbledon) July 15, 2018
No Fed in the final
In the end, on the final Sunday, there was no Federer across the net. There was a Wimbledon rookie, and a bone-weary one at that.
The first two sets were a combination of Djokovic’s virtuosity, Anderson’s jitters, and the South African’s heavy legs.
But Anderson got a second wind in the third set, and held multiple set points to turn a lopsided final into a competitive affair. He had opportunities to create doubt in Djokovic’s mind, to test the renewed confidence is still fragile, still a work in progress.
In those moments, Djokovic passed the final test.
He played those points like the champion he has always been, knows how to be. He swatted away that challenge as a man with 12 major titles on his mantel should.
During this fortnight, Djokovic started to remember who he was. Who he is.
Wwhen it was over, he munched on a double helping of the Centre Court turf.
— Wimbledon (@Wimbledon) July 15, 2018
And when he heard his young son Stefan calling for his Papa, the youngster finally allowed onto Centre Court as the match was ending, the circle was complete.
The US Open awaits
Nadal’s Wimbledon was his best since that 2011 final against Djokovic. His spring and summer have been fantastic, and there’s no reason to think he won’t carry that momentum into the second half of the season.
Federer, on the other hand, has shown moments of frailty in the last four months, beginning with the narrow loss to Juan Martin del Potro at Indian Wells.
After skipping the clay-court season, he put himself into some tight situations on his favored grass. Some, he squeezed out of. Some – like the squandered lead against Anderson – he didn’t.
There have been moments where the Swiss may well have questioned who he is. And that’s a product of the five-and-six year difference between himself, and the other two champions. But we’ve established this already: do not write him off.
Summer time is hard-court time. And that’s Djokovic time, his best surface as Federer’s is grass, and Nadal’s is clay.
If Djokovic has won the US Open just twice, he also has been a finalist five other times. And he has done no worse than the semifinals since 2006.
Now that he has has his voice back, it may well be ready to roar again.