Wolf energy is what Novak Djokovic called his ability to fight incredible odds and win after his third-round match at Wimbledon 2021.
“Also my upbringing in the mountains I spent a lot of time with wolves – this is wolf energy. I’m not kidding.”
The match was against world No 104 Denis Kudla and Djokovic won in straight sets, but the phrase stood out. It felt like a perfect description of the Serb’s unparalleled resilience that has taken him to the summit of the sport.
The 34-year-old reached a massive milestone when he won Wimbledon, equalling Roger Federer and Rafael Nadal’s record for most men’s singles Grand Slams. The top seed beat Matteo Berrettini 6-7 (4/7), 6-4, 6-4, 6-3 in one of the least surprising Major final results in recent history. The defending champion was always expected to win against the first-time finalist, the only question was the number of sets. But it was not the outcome of the final that mattered, but the impact of it.
As historic as the achievement is, the fact that Djokovic made reaching it look expected, even inevitable, is perhaps more momentous.
When he won the French Open after overcoming Nadal last month, arguably his greatest Grand Slam triumph, it was a historic first in many ways. But at the All England Club, there was little doubt that the defending champion would make it three in a row. Just like in the last few years there has been absolutely no question that Djokovic would reach the 20 mark, sooner rather than later.
His sixth Wimbledon title just confirmed what was long known – Djokovic is no longer chasing the pack, he is the leader. Wolf energy indeed.
Djokovic’s trophy cabinet is already loaded. He is the only man to have won every Major and Masters title at least twice. In fact, he is the first man to have won every Masters 1000 title – the more telling yardstick of consistent, all-court greatness. Earlier this year, he also became the male player with most weeks as world No 1, overtaking Federer’s record of 310.
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By all statistical and practical parameters, Djokovic was the best player of this era before Wimbledon even began. The only thing left to do, for purely academic purposes, was win the No 20. And he did that with a good, old-fashioned Djokovic win where nothing Berrettini did could cross the wall he put up.
Like the French Open final against Stefanos Tsitsipas, he dropped the first set due to a combination of him getting tight while serving and the Italian pouncing on the opening. Unlike the French Open final, the world No 1 bounced right back and began a tactical battle that neutralised all of Berrettini’s big weapons – the serve and the forehand. His return of serve cramped the Italian’s style, even as he played a steady game with minimal errors.
Playing his 30th Grand Slam final, Djokovic had the experience to work out a strategy that shifted the momentum in his favour. Playing for a record-equalling 20th Major, Djokovic also had some nerves and a lot of motivation; he dealt with the former in the first two sets and the latter shone through thereafter.
A milestone, also a stepping stone
This mark of 20 was a milestone to be reached, but with his mind-boggling mental strength, Djokovic made 20 the starting point – a stepping stone. He has won eight of the last 12 Grand Slams, and looks set to add a lot more.
When Djokovic won his first Grand Slam at the 2008 Australian Open, Federer had 12 while Nadal had three. When the Serb went on the game-changing rampage in 2011, Federer had 16 and Nadal nine. In the span of a decade, the three have made it 20-20-20, with Djokovic covering the most ground.
When Federer became the first man to win 20 Grand Slams at 36, he was evidently a player enjoying a second-wind in the twilight of his career. When Nadal reached the mark at 34, fittingly at French Open in 2020, it was about catching up to his biggest rival. But as Djokovic won 20, it marks the start of something new.
This is his first Channel Slam (winning Roland Garros and Wimbledon in the same year, a transitional challenge for the best) and puts him on the verge of becoming just the third man in history after Don Budge (1938) and Rod Laver (1962 and 1969) to complete the calendar Grand Slam. And just like the second French Open and 20th Major, winning all four in a year seems less like a possibility and more a certainty.
He is fitter and stronger than ever, he has constantly evolved his game making it bulletproof on every surface and against every player. Coupled with his unprecedented wolf-like fighting ability, beating him at a Major is an insurmountable peak as of now. The best have already tried and failed.
There was a time not too long ago when the powerful strikes of a peak Stan Wawrinka and later Dominic Thiem could hit through Djokovic even in best-of-five. There was a time when his own mental demons could get him down. Indeed, the last time he was on the verge of a Channel Slam – incidentally another Olympics year – he was stunned by Sam Querrey in the third round of Wimbledon, lost early at the Rio Games and was beaten in the US Open final.
But the Djokovic of 2021 is nothing like the Djokovic of 2016. He may be getting older but his tennis has also upgraded and the hunger to break records is the not-so-secret fuel. He candidly admitted that Federer and Nadal made him the player he is by constantly testing him.
All those tests are passed now. The chase is over. Whether Federer or Nadal win another Major or younger players rise to the challenge more often remains to be seen. But by equalling their record of 20, Djokovic has started a whole new race. One where he is the alpha wolf.