- Novak Djokovic won his first Grand Slam as a youngster with immense potential.
- Novak Djokovic withered away with fitness issues for a couple of years.
- Novak Djokovic returned to winning ways with an emphatic run.
Leave aside the first statement, and the second two stand true almost a decade later.
Back in 2011, Djokovic was enjoying an almost invincible season this time of the year. He has lost only one match – the French Open semi-finals to Roger Federer – and had won his third Grand Slam at Wimbledon. He has come a long way since he broke through at the age of 20 at the 2008 Australian Open, overcoming his physical frailties to become a consistent champion.
Fast forward to 2018, and the 31-year-old Serb has once again overcome almost impossible physical and mental barriers to lift his 13 Grand Slam. The win fittingly came at Wimbledon, the venue where he first proved his status as an all-time great. With a 6-2, 6-2, 7-6 (3) win over Kevin Anderson, he won his fourth title at the All England Club, first trophy of 2018, and a Major after more than two years in a manner that proved he is indeed back where he belongs. At world No 21, he became the lowest ranked player since Goran Ivanisevic in 2001 to lift the trophy.
In his three triumphs before Sunday, he had to beat Rafael Nadal (2011) and Roger Federer (2014, 15) on Centre Court. He lost one to Andy Murray in 2013.
It was symbolic, as Djokovic did what was thought impossible in the early years this century (2000-2010) – break the Federer-Nadal monopoly on Grand Slams. And in a poetic moment, he did the same this week: ending the second coming of Fedal dominance and breaking their streak of six consecutive Slams.
But the real symmetry lay in how the tides turned on his own career on the green lawns of Wimbledon. In a country ringing with calls of “Coming Home”, it was Djokovic who responded.
A torrid two years
In 2016, as defending champion and holder of all four Grand Slams at the same time – first man since Rod Laver in 1969 – he slumped to a third-round loss to Sam Querry that triggered a massive collapse. In 2017, retired in the second set of his quarter-final against Tomas Berdych with a right elbow injury, which turned out to be his last match of the year and resulted in a six-month injury layoff.
He came to the 2018 Australian Open – his turf – with a remodelled serve action. He lost in the fourth round to world No 58 Hyeon Chung. He then underwent a small surgery on his elbow and returned on the Sunshine tour, only to lose to 109-ranked Taro Daniel and world No 57 Benoit Paire in the first round of Indian Wells and Miami.
After another shock-loss Martin Klizan in Barcelona, it looked like he was done. Till he turned it around on clay with a semi-final in Rome, which he lost to Nadal. But the tipping point came when he lost an epic match to Marco Cecchinato in the quarter at French Open.
He hit a mental bottom where he wasn’t sure if he even wanted to play the grass court season. But he preserved and reached the finals at Queen’s tennis, even holding a match point before folding to Marin Cilic.
Could the machine power up again?
It was like a rusty engine of a trusty but old car, you keep pumping it up and it stutters to life, before giving in. Will the man who once dominated tennis as a machine ever get back into full gear?
The moment finally came, on the very Centre Court he was denied. The three-time former champion played his first match there in the third round against local favourite Kyle Edmund, and dropped the first set. And then the Djoker of old roared to life with the sound as striking as that of a vintage car.
He complained about the partisan crowd, he screamed back, he hit searing shots, he powered through the match and yelled in triumph. Brash and angry and victorious, just like back in the day.
He publicly voiced his displeasure on not getting the Centre Court and got it ahead of Roger Federer for the quarter-final against Kei Nishikori. He dropped the set there but never his intensity and he powered into the semi-final that counted as much as the final – the 52nd meeting between Djokovic and Nadal, the first on grass since the 2011 final.
And it is in this match, that he showed that the machine was powered up to max capacity. Over two days, five sets and 5 hours and 15 minutes, he overcame a peak Nadal in a battle of will, power, endurance and confidence. We saw Anderson stretch Federer to 13-11 in the decider, we saw John Isner actually lose the second longest match in Grand Slam history, but this was the match of the tournament.
The final was a rather pale affair in comparison to the two epic semi-finals. Anderson was a drained man after his two marathons. He holds the record for most games played at a single Wimbledon. Djokovic, playing on his third straight day, could see that and hit where it hurt. He made the tired 6’8” run and bend and make mistakes, even as he held easily.
Anderson was broken in the very first game, and went on to give up serve three more times. His booming serve, affected y fatigue, was returned with the ferocity Djokovic is known for and there were no free points. By the time he got any rhythm going, he was starting at a straight-sets defeat as Djokovic saved five set points to lift the trophy after a tie-break.
It was easy in the end, unlike his other finals, but Djokovic had done enough. This was not an injury depleted field like men’s tennis has been at many Majors in the recent past. Everyone had played at their best and he was the last man standing, literally and figuratively. He could finally eat the grass in celebration.
A different man, a different win
Djokovic’s celebration was another indication of how different this win was. He didn’t roar like against Edmund and Nishikori nor was he the exhausted, emotional man we saw after the semi-final.
His biggest reaction was reserved for when his three-year-old son Stefan came in to the stands and when they met, both father and son didn’t let go.
Djokovic the man, and the player, have both matured. Adversity does that to you. In the last two years he lost motivation, needed “shock treatment”, hired and fired coaches, reunited with his old coach Marian Vajda, lost all the trophies he held, followed a spiritual guru and became a more devoted family man.
But now, finally, he seems to have become the player he was. It was a long and difficult road for him. In the era of the Big Four, he matched up to the first two and had his own fairytale comeback from an injury layoff.
Unlike Federer and Nadal, Djokovic took his time but he is back to his winning ways and perhaps, the journey back has taught him more than we know.