The Chosen Man – Djokovic Makes History at Wimbledon

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Photo by Getty Images

Bill Simons

Deep into a fourth-set rally, Novak Djokovic retrieved a nasty backhand slice from the towering Matteo Berrettini. Then he dashed far to the opposite corner to unleash a forehand blast. But he stumbled on Wimbledon’s dusty floor. He righted himself and set off on a rather desperate eight-step diagonal sprint, where he hit a subtle, incredibly deft cross-court flick winner past his lunging 209-lb. Italian foe. The crowd roared. So did Nole. The Roman offered a wry smile.

Broadcaster Rich Connelly gushed, “Oh, magnificent! Magnificent! Every blade of grass! If ever there was a point that tells us something about this man, this was it. Whew! Some points are worth the admission price itself.”

And this was just one memory of a match that will long be etched in our minds. At 5:53 PM London time, as a backhand slice by the bold 25-year-old warrior fell limply into the net, Djokovic fell flat on his back in celebration. Never mind that the court made a hefty mark on his white shirt. All of tennis began to honor the mark this man is making on this season and on this sport.

Yes, Djokovic’s opponent has a charming appeal. Markus Buckman said the delightful 6′ 5″ Berrrettini, who looks more like a Pittsburgh Steeler than the No. 8 player in the world, “is a strapping, dark, Adonis-like man who is a marketing man’s dream.” But it is Nole who’s crafting a dream year at the crest of an extraordinary career.

Djokovic’s 6-7, 6-4, 6-4, 6-3 triumph was his fifth straight win in a Wimbledon final. He’s won six Wimbledons and, amazingly, 8 of the last 12 Slams. It can be said that never before has a player done in just six weeks what Novak has accomplished. Until the French Open semifinal, the conventional wisdom was that the toughest thing to do in tennis was to beat Rafa Nadal at Roland Garros. Then, in four astounding sets, Nole knocked out the clay meister on his favorite surface. The Spanish bull was so battered he didn’t even answer the bell at Wimbledon.

Nole not only came back from two sets down to bring a Greek tennis god to Earth at the French Open on clay. At Wimbledon, after dropping the first set, he tamed an Italian stallion on grass. Now some say the hardest thing to do in tennis is beating Djokovic at any Slam.

The man from the mountains, who’s wiped out generations of foes, has now effectively reduced the Big Three to the Big One. Rafa has won just 3 of the last 12 Slams, and, in that time, Roger has only reached one final.

As Wimbledon unfolded, virtually every tennis sage chose Djokovic to prevail over the field. Now his win has kick started a countdown to history. At last his long journey to equal Roger and Rafa’s record of 20 Slams is over. And – let’s take a breath – one can now legitimately contend that Nole is the GOAT. By equaling Rafa and Roger in Slam wins, all of Djokovic’s many other records now come to the fore.

Novak leads in his head-to-heads against both Roger and Rafa. His overall winning percentage is the best in tennis; his dazzling dominance at Masters tournaments jumps off the record books: he’s won all nine of them at least twice. Nole has the most weeks at No. 1 (328), and he’s tied with Pete Sampras for finishing the most years as No. 1 (6).

His victory today is a mighty step in his quest for the Golden Slam, a mark he may achieve by winning gold in Tokyo and avenging his humbling exit from last year’s US Open. (But he just said there’s only a 50-50 chance that he’ll go to Japan.) At Wimbledon, as Tom Cruise looked on, Novak cruised to a 5-2 first-set lead. Then an irony kicked in: just hanging in there against a superstar can inspire. In an almost 12-minute game with 22 points, Berrettini saved a set point, and, on his eighth opportunity, held serve.

With a spring in his step and elated with glee, Matteo soon broke Novak and went on to win the first-set tiebreak 7-4. Nole, the man who came from two sets down to win in Paris, offered a modest glare, as if to say, “Who do you think you’re messing with?”

And he relaxed. Never mind that he’d dropped the opener – five-set tennis is a marathon. He later recalled Michael Jordan’s mantra: “I failed, I failed, I failed, and that’s why I succeeded in the end…Obviously it was not great that I lost the first set. But on the other hand, I just felt like I wanted to get the first set over so I could start to swing through the ball and play the way I want to play.”

Vintage Nole soon got in gear and willed his way to ascendance, sprinting to a 4-0 second-set lead. As usual, the sublime defender took his foe’s best punches but kept him at arm’s length. With his laser intent, deep calm, uncanny court management and a panther’s guile, he found the open spaces of the well-worn lawn. Patient and balanced, he hit his angled winners and again displayed how he embraces adversity. That’s his thing.

Photo by Getty Images

Berrettini would tell Inside Tennis why Nole is so tough: “He neutralized my weapons…The way he covers the court, it’s unbelievable. It’s something that I never experienced. He’s the only player that makes me feel like this…Over the years, his serve improved a lot. He’s really precise. He’s really hitting the line when he wants to. This is something, especially on this surface, really important…Tactic-wise, he’s probably the best player, together with Roger. He’s studying your game, and…adjusting during the match…The fourth thing is that he played his 30th final today and I played my first. For sure he knew how to handle all the feelings and emotions.”

Djokovic echoed Matteo’s thought: “It’s a constant battle to stay present, to stay in the now. You are experiencing emotions and thoughts that would take you in the past – regret for not playing a certain ball or point…or anticipation for the future – what if, what’s going to happen?”

He said that over the years this is the aspect of his game that he’s improved the most. “When you’re present, experiencing and seeing things in a very simple way, it’s a tennis match, it’s only the next point, you’re there, then you’re able to perform your best…I’ve been very fortunate to be so strong in the decisive moments of the biggest tournaments…It’s a learning curve…the more familiar you are with yourself…[the more you realize] what are the moments when you’re a bit more courageous or free.”

Novak’s four-set win today was far from a blowout. Berrettini has a big game, was on an 11-0 winning streak and says he has the tools to win Wimbledon one day. But not this day. This day was for history, mental toughness and diplomacy. After his win, Novak was asked on court who he’d root for in the Italy vs. Britain Euro Cup final. Speaking to the English crowd, the man who lives near Italy adeptly dodged the loaded question.

Similarly, in his press conference, he chose his words carefully: “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. But whether I’m the greatest…or not, I leave that debate to other people…But I am extremely honored to definitely be part of the conversation.”

The conversation includes a slew of questions. Amazingly, 34-year-old Novak is still at his peak and dangerous on all surfaces. He could now put even more distance between himself and Roger and Rafa. Can he go on to equal the all-time mark that Serena has found so elusive – Margaret Court’s record of 24 Slams?

Plus, there’s one more thing. It’s true that Rafa, in full flight, especially on clay, is a wonder to behold. And Roger arguably is the most beautiful, most elegant, and, his fans would say, more wonderful player of all-time. But the numbers don’t lie. The mountain man from Serbia, who howls like a wolf and plays like a demon, on this day may be said to be the greatest of all time in the sport of tennis. As ESPN noted, “There’s something about Novak. It’s like he was chosen to do this.”

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