Express News Service
CHENNAI: Exactly a year ago, Novak Djokovic gave his sixth Wimbledon winner’s speech. He had won Slam No 20. He was level with his two great rivals, Roger Federer and Rafael Nadal. The assumption, then, was No 21 would come in New York in September. It was also assumed that the Serbian great would have killed the GOAT debate by Wimbledon 2022.
At his seventh Wimbledon winner’s speech on Sunday, Djokovic, instead, looked at the crown with relief. He allowed himself to smile. He joked with Nick Kyrgios, an opponent who cared about this result so deeply he didn’t start interacting with the chair umpire till deep in the second set.
“I never thought I was going to say so many nice things about you,” a beaming, smiling Djokovic told Kyrgios. “Considering the relationship. … OK, it’s a bromance.” Djokovic’s world, after a pulsating three hours on a sun-kissed centre court, was alright. He had produced an elite performance to win it 4-6, 6-3, 6-4, 7-6 (3).
That sense of relief was understandable. Because for many of the last 12 months, Djokovic’s world was dark. He was, it seemed at one point, living in purgatory. That most of it was self-made — a sketchy Covid-19 result, a maskless interview days after testing positive for the virus and his vaccine status — meant sympathy was in short supply.
Less than two weeks after he was deported from Australia, Nadal marched ahead to win a 21st Major. On the Parisian clay, Nadal made it 22. Meanwhile, Djokovic, who turned 35 the day the French Open began, lost in the quarterfinals, to Nadal. 22-20 and seemingly a world away from the top of the leaderboard.
SW19, suddenly, was, as it stood, his final chance to win a Slam in 2022. Since his first Slam in 2008, Djokovic had only gone three calendar years without winning at least one Major (2009, 2010 and 2017). During the last two months, it had emerged that the US government wouldn’t allow foreign athletes if they remained unvaxxed. So the pressure to deliver in London was massive.
And deliver he did over the two weeks. It wasn’t pretty, he lost at least one set in five of his seven matches including in the first round. Yet, that’s when he thrives. For all his unforced errors off the field, Djokovic remains the one true master at finding a way when put under pressure on the court.
And boy did Kyrgios put him under pressure. The 27-year-old, eight years Djokovic’s junior and a novice at this level compared to the Serb, was on the money.
There are times when he gives up the ghost, seemingly uninterested about the sport even when he’s playing it. Not on Sunday.
With a gun first service coupled by some uncharacteristic errors from Djokovic’s racquet — a double fault gave Kyrgios the break in the fifth game of the first set — he took the first set 6-4 in 31 minutes. The biggest warning sign that was flashing like neon lights was this: Djokovic had won only five points on the Kyrgios serve. Djokovic, inarguably the greatest men’s returner the sport has seen, was struggling.
That’s when he refocused. He recalibrated the way only he can. Even though Australian’s first serve percentages were high throughout the encounter (74% and 30 aces), Djokovic kept chipping away. His deep returns turned defence into attack straight away and it was enough to give him an opening.
The match turned in the Serbian’s favour when he broke Kyrgios from 4-0, 4-4 in the third set. From then on, it was going to be a matter of if and not when.
Credit must also go to the way Djokovic served and kept balls in play.
Out of his 74 first serves, he won 61 points. In the last two sets, the 35-year-old had a barely believable eight unforced errors. In the tie-break in the fourth set, he streaked away.
The smile followed. After a harrowing 10 months of big losses both on and off the court, it’s something he has earned.
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