It was almost fitting that Djokovic faced Anderson in the Wimbledon final where he was looking to win the first Grand Slam title of his 30’s. He won the first of his 20’s against another unheralded name, defeating the then little known Jo Wilfried Tsonga to claim the Australian Open in 2008. Then he was a young man knocking the first hole in the seemingly unbreakable wall of dominance that was Nadal and Federer.
This year, much had changed. Djokovic arrived at Wimbledon a 12-time Major champion, having reigned atop the world rankings for 223 weeks and with his place in the tennis pantheon assured. But he was confronted with that same Nadal and Federer dominance, which had looked broken just two years ago, when he, as the main architect of their undoing, had completed the Career Grand Slam at the French Open and claimed four Slams in a row, a feat no other had accomplished since 1968.
But since then Djokovic had been in the wilderness, robbed of his lethal accuracy and focus by injury and other more personal, private issues. In his absence, the two kings of the tennis world had risen again to claim their crowns once more. 2017 was their year, as they split the Majors and the Masters more or less between them. Djokovic was hardly there to challenge, and took a 6-2 6-4 hammering against Nadal in his only match against either of them.
By 2018, Djokovic looked a shell of the player he had once been. Like Federer had in 2016, he had missed the back-end of the 2017 season, but when he returned at the Australian Open it was clear that his injuries still plagued him. He fell in the fourth round and finally had the surgery he probably should have had months before. A brief return for the Sunshine Double yielded no good results, but reuniting with his old coach and confidante Marian Vajda seemed to.
The clouds part at Wimbledon
There were still disappointments for Djokovic to take. A four-set loss to the unseeded Marco Cecchinato in the French Open quarterfinals looked a particularly bitter pill for the Serb to swallow. But there was no denying the progress he was making even if it was incremental. His first appearance since 2010 at Queen’s yielded good results and a first final since Eastbourne nearly a year before. He lost it to Marin Cilic, despite holding match point, but looked sharp all-the-same.
Then came Wimbledon, where he was seeded 12th, his lowest ever at the Championships. Even that was rather flattering considering his ranking had fallen outside the top 20. But he begun as though he meant business, with Tennys Sandgren and Horacio Zeballos the first to feel his renewed sting. Kyle Edmund’s dream of glory lived just long enough to breathe hope around a Centre Court revelling in English footballing victory, before Djokovic mercilessly, and angrily, snuffed it out in four.
The big-hitting Karen Khachanov was cut down in the onrushing darkness at the end of a truly manic Monday at Wimbledon before the precision of Kei Nishikori was rendered wayward in the quarterfinals. In the last four, Djokovic faced his sternest test in Rafael Nadal, half of that beloved duopoly of dominance and the world #1. It was a clash worthy of two champions of their stature, but somehow Djokovic edged it, taking it 6-4 3-6 7-6 3-6 10-8 the afternoon after it had begun.
That left him facing Kevin Anderson, the eighth seed and marathon man, who had overcome Federer 13-11 in the fifth having saved a match point in the third set in the quarterfinals. Then to reach the final he had outlasted John Isner 26-24 in the fifth set of the longest match ever on Centre Court. Against Djokovic he had little left to give, and despite a fine effort to make a match of it in in the third, Djokovic was never unduly troubled in winning 6-2 6-2 7-6.
How did he do it?
Djokovic’s sudden burst back to his Grand Slam winning best appears both more and less surprising than that of Federer and Nadal, who both ended long Major-title droughts last year. Federer emerged from missing virtually all of 2016 to lift the Australian Open, whilst Nadal reminded the world of just how good he can be on clay, dominating from April to June for the loss of just one match to win in Monte Carlo, Barcelona, Madrid and Paris.
Djokovic was certainly match tough once more ahead of this year’s Championships, having played a full clay court swing and a Wimbledon warm up. And he had begun to look fired up once again, which appeared the most conspicuous absence in his game. That passion served him well at Wimbledon, as he seemed to adopt a siege mentality, which pitted him against the opponent, the crowd, the entire world. For the first time since 2016, it was a battle he looked ready to win.
But there was also renewed conviction behind his groundstrokes. Errors dried up where they had been flowing freely, and the backhand down the line, as clear an indicator of Djokovic’s state of mind as anything, returned with a vengeance. Most important of all, however, was his serving and returning. When stepping to the line, Djokovic hit his spots with ruthless regularity, particularly when up against it. In the third set of the final, Anderson had five set points. Djokovic delivered five first serves.
His effectiveness behind his serve was bettered only by the damage he did to his opponents when returning. There he was in devastating form. He created 100 break points, a total bettered this century only by Lleyton Hewitt in 2002. Though his rate of conversion was somewhat disappointing, he still broke 43 times such was the pressure he exerted. Backed by fine serving and peerless returning, he became difficult, perhaps impossible, to stop.
It wasn’t his greatest triumph. That title probably belongs to his herculean effort in overcoming Murray and Nadal over more than 11 hours of tennis to win the Australian Open in 2012. That title confirmed once-and-for-all that he belonged at tennis’ top table. His win at Roland Garros, which exacted a greater mental toll than any other so long had he wanted it and so hard had he worked for it, also surely ranks higher than this Wimbledon win.
But it was clearly precious to Djokovic, particularly because it was the first Slam his son Stefan had seen him lift. That possibility provided him motivation and with that the game slotted back into place to remind the world just how good Djokovic can be. And if he can carry that forward into the US Open series on the hard courts he will be dangerous indeed. The good times look to be rolling for him again but whatever happens, tennis is set for a blockbuster North American summer.