Djokovic relies on gutsy play, inner strength in Wimbledon victory
LONDON -- For a moment, anyway, none of it mattered. Not the championship point or the dismal service game he squandered an hour earlier. Not the three losses he suffered in the last three Grand Slam finals he played. Not the Centre Court fans in their polo shirts and sundresses, pulling so desperately for his opponent that the match felt like a road game. Not the 17 months that had elapsed since he'd last won a major, the grains of sand slowly slipping from his career. Not the No. 1 ranking that hung in the balance. Not his suboptimal play all tournament, nor the down-the-line backhand that had stubbornly betrayed him this week. None of it.
We add this to the laundry list of Novak Djokovic’s assets: an ability to compartmentalize. Sunday's Wimbledon final had all sorts of stakes and significance and obstacles and distractions And then they were amplified when Djokovic couldn’t finish it in the fourth set, and the match headed to a final stanza.
“Thank you for letting me win today,” Djokovic said facetiously during his interview at the trophy ceremony.
It was unclear whether he was talking to Federer or to fate.
A father-to-be who devoted the title to his fiancée and soon-to-be-born baby, Djokovic will learn soon that choosing among favorite kids is an impossibility, but not so much for Grand Slams. Regardless of what transpires from here, how is this not the most memorable of Djokovic's seven major titles (and counting)? With his career at something of a crossroads, against the most adverse circumstances imaginable, with the specter of a yet another crushing choke looming, Djokovic simply wouldn’t go away. To recover from that fourth-set catastrophe, in which he wasted a 5-2 lead, is a singular demonstration of guts.
"Most special Grand Slam final I've played," Djokovic said. "At the time of my career for this Grand Slam trophy to arrive is crucial, especially after losing [three] Grand Slam finals in a row. I started doubting, of course, a little bit. I needed this win a lot."
Djokovic has never won with the extravagant talent and stylish play of Federer. He has never won with Rafael Nadal’s left-handed violence. His game is based on solid, stolid tennis, betraying no obvious weakness, while reinforcing the importance of a return game. The 27-year-old wins not with knockout punches, but with precision. On Sunday, he relied on his conditioning, his heart and his ability to drill returns under pressure.
The day before the final, Djokovic agreed with the perception that he had gotten this far without playing his best tennis. Yet he started cleanly on Sunday afternoon, recording his first unforced error six games into the match and holding his serve until the fourth set. While Djokovic couldn't convert two set points in the first-set tiebreak -- his backhand failing him again -- he recovered quickly, breaking Federer’s serve early in the second set and running it out 6-4.
"It was disappointing losing the fourth set after being so close to winning it and [having] match point," Djokovic said. "But the only way I could have won the match is by believing that I can make it all the way until the end and staying mentally strong. That's what I've done. I didn't allow my emotions to fade away, as it was probably the case in the Roland Garros final [against Nadal] a couple weeks ago."
Djokovic gave no quarter and steadily held serve through the fifth set. At 5-4, he scored the biggest break of serve of his career when Federer made four unforced errors.
Federer was gracious in defeat -- nothing new there -- but the sting was obvious. Federer is nearly 33 now and, at this stage of his career, a lot has to go right for him to win another Grand Slam title -- No. 18 has eluded him for two years.
At Wimbledon, a lot had gone right. His draw was benign. The conditions were pleasant. He was home -- not just on the grass, but at Wimbledon, where he rivals Andy Murray in crowd adulation. His serve accompanied him to most of the matches, as he was broken only once all tournament before the final. He had spent significantly less time on the court than Djokovic.
Even facing his best opponent, Federer sustained a high level of play for the most part. He served well (29 aces), made judicious approaches to the net and hung with Djokovic from the baseline, something even his coaches were skeptical he could do. In 36 rallies that exceeded nine strokes, Federer and Djokovic each won 18. Federer also showed tremendous fight by breaking Djokovic’s serve three times in the fourth set. Alas, he blinked in the fifth set, and when he takes inventory of his remarkable career, he will likely look at this as an opportunity lost.
"I kept believing and kept trying to play offensive tennis," Federer said. "I'm happy it paid off in some instances. As you can imagine, I'm very disappointed not being rewarded with victory. But it was close. Novak deserved it at the end clearly, but it was extremely close."
Djokovic will never forget this day either. He has repatriated himself with winning majors, and he validated his decision to hire coach Boris Becker. The six-time major champion was brought on not to retool Djokovic's strokes or teach him how to serve-and-volley. He was brought on to help Djokovic close out big matches -- the ones that had gotten away. There were tense moments Sunday, but ultimately the coach and player earned their keep.
After shaking Federer’s hand at the net, Djokovic headed to his box, making a bee-line for Becker. He hugged him tight, shaking with emotion. Neither man seemed to speak. Really, what is there to say, apart from everything?