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Wimbledon 2018: Novak Djokovic provides glimpse of old irrepressibility in his unlikeliest Grand Slam title triumph

In a tournament ridden with upsets, Novak Djokovic’s 6-2, 6-2, 7-6 win over Kevin Anderson made for a rather staid Wimbledon final. But the form book would say it’s an upset nevertheless, with the eighth-seeded Anderson going down to Djokovic, who was seeded outside the top-10 at No 12. History would say he is the lowest ranked, at 21, man to win the Wimbledon title since wildcard Goran Ivanisevic (ranked 125 at the time) in 2001.

Serbia's Novak Djokovic celebrates after winning the Wimbledon. AFP

Serbia's Novak Djokovic celebrates after winning the Wimbledon. AFP

There was none of the drama that engulfed Ivanisevic’s heroic triumph on his fourth, and possibly last, shot at Wimbledon glory. Djokovic played it cool. He was on the money right from the get-go, playing solid, accurate groundstrokes that not only tested Anderson’s match-readiness but provided a glimpse of the old relentless Djokovic, who had once conquered the world. The final wasn’t epic, but Djokovic’s turbulent ride towards it sure was.

A smiling, excited Djokovic, lifting the gilted Wimbledon trophy for the fourth time cut a drastically contrasting picture from his low-key exit from the previous Grand Slam – Roland Garros—less than a month before. After he lost 3-6, 6-7, 6-1, 6-7 to Italian journeyman Marco Cecchinato in the quarter-finals, Djokovic had said, “I don’t know if I’m going to play on grass.” It looked like the famous Djokovic fire was dying down.

He had spent years trying to chase down Roger Federer and Rafael Nadal to assert his position in at the top of a men’s game. In Federer and Nadal, he had rivals who would go down in history as not only the best players of their generation but possibly the best of all time. And he had to be better than them. The Serb had first validated his position 10 years ago, beating Federer in the semi-final of the Australian Open before winning the title. His mother had famously, and a few interpreted as cockily, proclaimed, “The King is dead, Long live the King.”

In a tennis world divided by, and fawning over, Federer and Nadal, Djokovic had to carve his own identity. It was a near-impossible task, but Djokovic showed the heart for it like no one else before him. He fortified himself, physically and emotionally, playing the game with such unrelenting intensity that it bordered on the mechanical. 2011 was Djokovic’s year, he won three of the four Grand Slams, but the French Open eluded. The Serb then set himself possibly the toughest task in the men’s game currently: beating Nadal at Roland Garros. He kept chipping at Nadal’s pedestal, and finally brought him down in 2015. The Serb won the quarter-final against Nadal, but couldn’t go all the way. He met an inspired Stan Wawrinka in the title clash.

Having shed a few tears of disappointment over that loss in Paris, Djokovic rebooted to win the next four Slams. His incredible French Open win in 2016 meant he became the first men’s player since Rod Laver in 1969 to hold all four majors at a time. Neither Federer nor Nadal had done that. For once, Djokovic was in a league of his own.

None of his previous achievements was surprising, not even the first major win at the Australian Open. The effort that Djokovic was putting into it was for all to see. It was a matter of time before he breached the Grand Slam fortress built by Federer and Nadal.

But the Serb’s Wimbledon triumph, his 13th major title overall, was probably the unlikeliest. Since reaching the peak of his powers at the 2016 French Open, Djokovic had stumbled from one bewildering defeat to another. He of the water-tight defence saw errors leak from his racquet with alarming regularity. That same year, Djokovic surrendered his position as World No 1 to Andy Murray. He won only two titles— ATP 250s on the lowest rung—in 2017 and retired from the Wimbledon quarter-final clash against Tomas Berdych with an elbow injury. Tennis’ elastic-boy was breaking. There were rumours of domestic troubles; he had crossed the tradition prime tennis age of 30. Djokovic called off his season after Wimbledon, hoping to recover from the chronic elbow trouble.

There was no fairytale return like Federer or Nadal, who had arrived into 2017 after prolonged injury layoffs and went out again to rule the world, splitting the four Slams between them. In fact, they have equally shared the honours at the last six majors. Djokovic was back on the game’s periphery. Doubts and uncertainty had replaced his unwavering confidence. After losing to Hyeon Chung at the Australian Open earlier this year, Djokovic opted for surgery on the troublesome elbow. In May this year, he dropped out of top-20 for the first time since 2006.

“Did I truly believe that I can get back on the level?” the Serb pondered at Wimbledon this week. “Yes, I mean, it's hard for me to play tennis and not believe that I can be the best at what I do. I've been fortunate to achieve so much in my career that every time I go to the tournament, I have highest of ambitions.”

It happened slowly at first, then all at once. Djokovic had served reminders of his prowess at Rome, at Roland Garros and then at the Queen’s grass-court tournament, where he made the final and even held a match point against Marin Cilic. He couldn’t finish off the job at either. Then it all came together against his fiercest rival, Nadal, in the semi-final of Wimbledon. The Serb was at his tenacious best, retrieving from all corners of the court and going toe-to-toe with currently the best player in the world. In a gruelling five-setter that lasted over five hours, Djokovic, step by step, found his way back.

He had less than 24 hours to recover for the final against Anderson. The South African had endured a marathon match of his own, defeating American John Isner in six hours and 36 minutes with a final set score of 26-24. The semi-finals had been about long matches and tall deeds. But with Anderson, playing only his second major semi-final, far from his best, the final was an exhibition for Djokovic’s new-found old talents.

“I was quite lucky to get through,” Djokovic said. “I’m very grateful to everyone who has been supporting me. The last couple of years haven’t been easy, facing for the first time a severe injury. I had many moments of doubt and didn’t know if I could come back. But there’s no better place in the world to make a comeback. I always dreamed of holding this trophy as a boy. This is a sacred place for tennis.”

No one saw it coming. But once on the big stage of a Grand Slam final, Djokovic belonged.


Updated Date: Jul 16, 2018 13:07 PM

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