In the post-match conference, Matteo Berrettini laid it out.
“I’m pissed cos I lost,” said the Italian after the Wimbledon final. “I didn’t play my best match. But it’s thanks to Novak. He made me play in this way. That’s his strength. That’s why he’s one of the best there ever is.”
To most fans watching the match, it was clear that Novak Djokovic was not at his best. He wasn’t striking the ball as well as we have seen him do in the past, the drop shot wasn’t working, there were three double faults in the first three games and he just seemed to be holding back for the most part in the first set at least… as if he was waiting for Berrettini to start making mistakes. In a way, perhaps the moment got to Djokovic more than it did to Berrettini.
“I felt more nervous than I usually feel, particularly in the first set. After the first set was done, I felt relief and I could start swinging through the ball. I then felt more comfortable and in control”, said Djokovic after the final.
And what did control mean? In set one, Djokovic made 10 unforced errors. In set two, he made four. In set three, he made three. In set four, he made just four. It essentially meant that once the world No 1 got comfortable, Berrettini, the big-hitting Italian, got absolutely no freebies.
And there is a pattern to this. Djokovic at his best gives nothing to the opponent – we saw that against Kevin Anderson in the second round at Wimbledon this year. Djokovic, not at his best, gives very little to the opponent – we saw that in the final.
At his best, Roger Federer, to be fair, wouldn’t quite care about what his opponent was serving up. Once the Swiss ace found his rhythm, the opponent had to do all the getting. The shots would simply flow. Nadal is at his best when he is being aggressive. The closer he gets to the baseline, the more dangerous he becomes. He too wouldn’t hang around. The forehand would be a constant threat. But no one quite strangles the opponent like Djokovic does. The opponents simply feel like they can’t play their game.
Djokovic’s winners/unforced errors count at Grand Slams this year:
1st round winners/ unforced errors: 47/24
2nd round W/UE: 25/6
3rd round W/UE: 34/28
4th round W/UE: 28/23
QF W/UE: 23/30
Semis W/UE: 33/15
Total count W/UE: 221/147
French Open 2021
1st round winners/ unforced errors: 33/21
2nd round W/UE: 32/22
3rd round W/UE: 30/18
4th round W/UE: 53/42
QF (vs Berrettini) W/UE: 44/19
Semis (vs Nadal) W/UE: 50/37
Final W/UE: 56/41
Total count W/UE: 265/200
Australian Open 2021
1st round winners/ unforced errors: 41/16
2nd round W/UE: 56/37
3rd round W/UE: 52/53
4th round W/UE: 41/25
QF W/UE: 48/56
Semis W/UE: 30/14
Final W/UE: 20/17
Total count W/UE: 288/218
Another illustration of that was how Djokovic dominated the shorter rallies. Berrettini has the bigger serve, the bigger forehand and the game where he likes to go for broke. He rode these three weapons into the final. So by most yardsticks, to win he needed to dominate the shorter points. But Djokovic put a spanner in the works there.
When Berrettini did get his forehand to fire, he won points. But there were just not enough of those moments; not enough to make a dent. For most of the time, Djokovic did enough to keep the Italian off-balance.
He didn’t need to do more.
0 to 4 shots: Djokovic 104, Berrettini 85
5 to 8 shots: Berrettini 34, Djokovic 29
9 or more shots: Djokovic 12, Berrettini 12
The Djokovic era requires a different kind of perfection from all those trying to beat him. His low number of unforced errors and defensive abilities allied with his various styles of play mean that beating him is now an exercise in perfection or at least that is how many of the young challengers will feel.
In a way, that is perhaps more intimidating because a player knows that every unforced error is a gift that won’t be returned in kind. It almost forces them to play differently; it almost forces them to dance to his tune and continuously ask the question: ‘What does it take to beat Novak?’
Djokovic has now won eight of the last 12 Grand Slams. Now, that’s domination in an era where Nadal and Roger (just barely) are still playing and a host of young challengers are making their presence felt.
“I consider myself best and I believe that I am the best, otherwise I wouldn’t be talking confidently about winning Slams and making history,” said Djokovic after winning his sixth Wimbledon trophy. “But whether I’m the greatest of all time or not, I leave that debate to other people.”
And the other people might argue that in his quest to become the G.O.A.T, Djokovic is making very few unforced errors indeed.