Wimbledon: Novak Djokovic—The Man Who Beat God

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By Bill Simons

We media folk adore scoops. It makes us feel all puffy. So, here’s a dandy one from this correspondent.

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Based on reliable sources, it’s safe to say that God—long ago out of the firmament, after he lit up the universe with lightness, crafted the depths of the oceans, shaped many a mountain, and had the guts to create that devilish character we know as man—had a brainstorm.

And thus God created Federer: that would be Roger Federer, aka The Mighty Fed, the Royal Raj, Mr. Perfect.

Immaculate, classy, impeccable—he is our knowing sage and sublime master of all things tennis, who moves to every corner on court with a dreamy athletic grace; whose backhand flicks wonders and drop shot beauties to create artistic pictures which delight fans from Dover to Devonshire, from Delhi to Detroit.

Truly, this is a man apart. It’s not only that he brushes his teeth three times a day and has been honored by kings and queens. It’s not just that Hollywood moguls and squealing kids alike all but fall to their knees to honor this man of grace, He’s mastered four languages, fathered a pair of twin girls, and then, just to have a little symmetry, evened things out with a set of twin boys. Goodness, this man is even better at reproduction than the rest of us.

Need we even note that the greatest man to ever lift a tennis racket has re-written the sport’s dusty stats book: 17 Grand Slam wins, 23 straight semifinals, 302 weeks at No. 1. But more than this, this super-father at times suggests that he has beaten father time. His wrinkles are modest, his legs are tireless, and now, at last, his back doesn’t ache.

While his contemporaries are either talking in broadcast studios (Andy Roddick) or recovering back home after first-round defeats (Lleyton Hewitt), old man Roger rolls on. Just a month shy of 33, he hoped to become the oldest man to win Wimbledon.

No wonder the world adores this athlete, perhaps the most beloved sportsman on the globe. Roger remains driven by a love of his sport.

Yes, the Swiss government regularly gives him cows and creates Roger stamps. He’s the international ambassador for fancy cars and nice watches, he’s won the Stefan Edberg sportsmanship award nine times, and he has a committed Africa charity. Plus, in this land where cheeks are rosy, children are dutiful, and royals are venerated, Roger is all but worshiped.

But more than anything, Roger himself still loves tennis. Despite the aches, the airport delays, the ill-conceived press questions, the man plays on. His game offers beauty, his face reveals just the slightest expression—a bemused smile.

So us normal folk are left to ask, what doesn’t Mr. Perfect do? Well, shock of shocks, with four nannies, Super Dad doesn’t change diapers. More to the point, he hadn’t won a Slam since Wimbledon in 2012. Last year, he got booted out of the Championships by a big-hitting Ukrainian. Going into this year’s tournament, he’d won only one title in 2014.

But now, certainly, he had a golden opportunity—perhaps his last “best” chance to win a Slam. After all, in the final, he’d be facing his old rival Novak Djokovic, in their 35th meeting.

And the Serb had been in free-fall when it came to delivering in big matches. He was, as they say over here, a nearly man. He nearly won what has been called the greatest clay court match in history, a 4:17 French Open semifinal against Rafa Nadal in 2013. He nearly beat Andy Murray in last year’s momentous Wimbledon final. In three successive Slam final appearances (and five of his last six), the Serb, who was so dominant in 2011, had walked away the loser.

The tennis Gods had to be asking, “What’s wrong with Novak?” And certainly they would see to it that their beloved Roger would prevail today. It only made sense that the man born on the eighth day of the eighth month, with a sporting agency company named Team 8, who was going for his 80th title, should win a record eighth Wimbledon.

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From the outset one thing was clear.

This was modern tennis at its awesome best—line to line, corner to corner, rich with power and invention. Early on, there were whispers in the press box, “Hey, this has classic written all over it.” After all, there was Roger, running free and blasting backhands, rushing the net and showing us the most delicate of leaping volleys. What an artist.

But Nole, the man with the most malleable joints in the joint, amazed us with powerful hitting: a consistent deep forehand, one of the best backhands around, returns which Andre Agassi says are the best in the game, great defense, and astonishing errorless ball. As the opening set swept to a tiebreak, ladies in pastel frocks and gentleman in stylish pink shirts were riveted by astounding test-of-will rallies that built to exquisite crescendos. Some in the press box dared to ask, “Is this the best first set of a Slam ever? Is this an all-time classic in the making?”

Early in the tiebreak, Nole blinked, and Roger sprinted to a 3-0 lead. Nole countered to even the score, and went on to claim two set points. But, seemingly imperious to pressure, Federer blasted one of his flash-force forehands just inside the line. After 52 minutes, when Novak’s serve wobbled a bit and he netted a rally backhand, proud Roger roared, the 9-7 winner of the breaker.

Still, there’s a reason why Djokovic was the No. 1 seed in this tournament. At one-all in the second, he countered one of Roger’s daring charges to the net with a mean backhand to break, and promptly motored on to win the set. Then he grabbed the lead by prevailing 7-4 in the third-set tiebreak. Never mind that at one point Roger smashed five aces in a row, or that he had numerous opportunities to take the initiative. Nole always countered. At 3-1 in the fourth, he was in command, up two-sets-to-one and a break.

Back against the wall, Federer hit an explosive forehand to break back, only to be broken yet again, He soon found himself down 5-2, just a game from a devastating defeat.

Boris Becker, who was said to have “a ginger mane,” and Princess Kate, with her main squeeze Prince William, knew that Roger was done. At least the grand old man had a nice run—reaching the final, where he won a set.

But there is also a reason why Federer is called the greatest. Once again harnessing his aggression, he broke the Nole code. The Serb suffered a string of inexplicable errors and glared at his box as if to ask, “Why is this happening to me?”

All around Centre Court and up on Murray Mound, fans in creme panamas or floral frocks roared as Fed stormed back. The Swiss unleashed a fierce run, fighting off a Championship point with an ace, reeling off five straight games to grab the fourth set, 7-5.

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This match, which so deserved a fifth set, got one. Now Djokovic—so often mentally or physically fragile—was going deep within, haunted by past collapses, but desperately trying to stay in the moment.

Against signs of fatigue, Federer also battled on, giving all that he had. Under attack, losing speed and pace, he nonetheless saved three break points in the eighth game.

Yet even the Gods cannot defy time. Age matters. Facing another Championship point at 4-5 15-40, the Mighty Fed hit a less-than-mighty backhand. Djokovic fell to the ground and tasted some grass to celebrate his 6-7, 6-4,  7-6, 5-7, 6-4 victory, before climbing up to his friends in the stands for one of the best group hugs in recent memory.

Djokovic dedicated the win to his fiancée, his soon-to-be-born child, his team, and his late, great coach, Jelena Gencic.

“I was just overwhelmed with the emotions that I was experiencing,” he told the press afterward. “Sincerely, this has been the best-quality Grand Slam final that I ever [have] been part of … I could have easily lost my concentration in the fifth and just handed him the win.

But I didn’t, and that’s why this win has a special importance to me mentally. Because I managed to not just win against my opponent, but win against myself, and find the inner strength that got me the trophy.”

Bathed in sunlight and deep shadows, Centre Court—the greatest sporting oval in sports—has seen countless dramas. But few like this. Maybe this final was not quite as dramatic as Don Budge beating Gottfried von Cramm (much to Hitler’s chagrin) in 1937, or Borg downing McEnroe in 1980, or Nadal dusting Federer in the dusk in 2008, or even Murray’s win last year, which offered redemption for this nation after 77 years of futility.

Still, on this day of sublime play, a splendid Serb did pretty good. He beat the devil within himself—and the considerable God across that Wimbledon net.