There he was again. Crouching down to the Centre Court surface, plucking a piece of grass, eating it with relish. In a Grand Slam ruled by a great number of unbreakable traditions, this is one that is synonymous with Novak Djokovic.

On Sunday, he beat Nick Kyrgios 4-6, 6-3, 6-4, 7-6(3) to win his seventh Wimbledon title. That’s level with Pete Sampras and just one short of Roger Federer’s men’s singles record at the All England Club. But there was one thing he did overtake the Swiss maestro in.

For most of his career, Djokovic has been a chaser both on and off the court. He’s a defensive baseliner, a tireless runner who will run down almost everything an opponent will throw at him, patiently build a rally, and pull the trigger when least expected from any position on the court. He’s built a reputation of being one of the greatest – if not the best – returner the game has seen.

But when he won his latest Grand Slam, he finally overtook Federer’s tally of 20 Major titles. Now he’s just one short of Rafael Nadal’s all-time men’s record. All his life he has chased the other two members of tennis’ Big Three. For the first time ever, he’s overtaken one of them.

“Things have changed in the last year, year and a half for me. I achieved that historic No 1, weeks as No 1 that I worked for all my life,” he said in the press conference, referring to overtaking Federer’s previous record of being the world No 1 for 310 weeks – Djokovic has held that position for 373 weeks.

“Now that that’s done and dusted, I prioritise Slams and big tournaments really and where I want to play, where I feel good.”

And Wimbledon has been that place – this year especially – where he has felt most comfortable. He’s won seven of the eight finals he’s played at the All England Club. He now joins an elite list that includes just Bjorn Borg, Pete Sampras and Federer as the only men to have won at least four Wimbledon titles on the trot in the Open Era.

In the past, the 35-year-old has made no secret of his desire to set new records. As the 2022 season started, he was level with Nadal and Federer on 20 Slams each. Then came the debacle in Australia, where Djokovic was deported for his unvaccinated status despite being granted an exemption to travel to the country. The Serb had been a three-time defending champion at Melbourne Park, but in his absence, Nadal went one ahead to claim his 21st Major title. He later made it 22 at the French Open, beating Djokovic in the quarterfinal enroute to a 14th Roland Garros crown.

Wimbledon was only the second Grand Slam event Djokovic got to play in this year. But he had to stay patient, regroup and refocus to get back to his best, given everything that had happened this year.

“Certainly this year has not been the same like last years. It started the way it started and it affected me in the first several months of the year. I was not feeling great generally. I mean, mentally, emotionally, I was not at a good place,” said Djokovic, who played his first match of the year in February, at the Dubai Open, and wasn’t allowed to play the Indian Wells and Miami Masters since the United States government policy disallows unvaccinated foreigners to enter the country.

“I wanted to play, but at the same time when I went out on the court in Dubai, was the first tournament of the year, I just felt so much pressure and emotions happening. I wasn’t feeling myself on the court. I realised at that point that it’s going to take some time, that I have to be patient, and sooner or later I will get myself in the state, optimal state, where I would like to be.”

The grass court Slam provided him that avenue.

Djokovic’s most successful Major has been the Australian Open, which he has won nine times. But it’s Wimbledon that he remembers as the event that made him fall in love with the sport, when he watched the 1993 edition on television, as a six-year-old growing up in Serbia.

It’s been that one tournament that has helped him restart and get his career back on track, not just this year.

“Wimbledon historically has always come at such important stages of my life and my career. Few times, I think it was in 2018 when I was starting the year with elbow surgery, trying to work my way back in the rankings, not playing well. This was the first Slam that I won that served as a springboard for later US Open win and 2019 Australian Open,” he said.

“It’s not a coincidence that this place has such relevance in my life and career. It’s a relief, as well, considering what I’ve been through of course this year. It adds more value and more significance and more emotions, of course.”

It was a win there, in 2011, that first put him at the top of the world rankings. Now it’s the place where he’s overtaken one of his biggest rivals on the tour.

Of course, he still needed to put in the work to get the latest win.

He faced his biggest challenge in the quarterfinal when 10th seeded Italian Jannik Sinner won the first two sets, and Djokovic had to muster every ounce of experience he had, and bring in the best of his retrieving game to quell the challenge of the player 15 years his junior. In the semifinal he overcame a partisan crowd as he beat Britain’s Cameron Norrie in four sets.

In the final though, he faced the mercurial Kyrgios.

The 27-year-old is one of the biggest servers in the game, raining down 30 aces on Sunday. But in his first ever Grand Slam final, he was facing a returner extraordinaire.

Kyrgios did get the opening set, but that was cue for Djokovic to start dictating play. He started to lengthen the rallies, forcing the opponent to play the way he wanted. Djokovic would build up the point, find an opening and then place the ball in the empty space on the court to force an error. And he was ready to charge forward to chase down the drop shots the Australian would play, frustrating Kyrgios by making him play an extra ball.

As Djokovic climbed back into the match, Kyrgios fell back into his usual state of annoyance. He muttered to himself, swore and shouted at his box, asked the umpire to evict a spectator, yet still continued to keep Djokovic busy.

In the second set, with the Serbian serving for the set, Kyrgios raced to a 0-40 lead – Djokovic started that game with a double fault, just like he did in the first point of the match. But then he was aided by Kyrgios’ hastiness and a spark of his own audacity with a drop shot at 30-40, eventually winning the set with a service winner.

He found a break at 4-4 in the third set despite Kyrgios leading 40-0, and then cleared out the set.

The fourth was a bit tighter, as neither player could break the other’s serve. Eventually it came down to a tiebreaker when a final Kyrgios backhand into the net finished the match.

They joked in the post-match presentation, about how their relationship has thawed over the years – “It’s officially a bromance,” Djokovic declared.

But his own romance with Wimbledon continued on the day. He has never lost a match on Centre Court since the final in 2013, and is undefeated in the tournament since he retired midway through the 2017 quarterfinal.

This year’s title puts him ahead of Federer, one short of Nadal, but gives him the shot of confidence that he’s craved for in this unprecedented season.

It’s still uncertain if he will get to compete at the US Open. But even if he doesn’t, when he looks back in the coming months at the season he’s had, he will bask in the glow of the most prestigious trophy the sport has to offer.

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