The Redemption of Novak Djokovic

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Photo by Getty Images

Bill Simons

Wimbledon

Longevity has value. Trophies rarely lose their shine. But there are few better feelings in this world than redemption. And goodness knows, Novak Djokovic dearly craved redemption.

Lest we forget, last summer Novak left London as an ascendant man. He’d beaten Nadal in Paris en route to the 2021 French title and then won his third straight Wimbledon and his third straight Slam of the year. Can you spell d-o-m-i-n-a-n-c-e? But then Nole’s world collapsed. The Serbian patriot left the Tokyo Olympics without a medal, and New York without Grand Slam history.

He split with his longtime coach and then endured detention and deportation in Australia. When he returned to the tour he felt diminished and anxious. In Paris, Rafa kind of bullied him.

Just a year ago he’d been full of swagger, the lead wolf far above the ATP pack. Now it wasn’t that his tail was between his legs – but Nole had descended from the stratosphere. Never before had a tennis player experienced such a dysfunctional year. 

And the start of Nole’s eighth Wimbledon final was problematic. In the sixth game, Novak double faulted, and an athletic genius named Nick Kyrgios sprinted to the lead, having gained a 3-2 edge and the fast start he knew was so important. 

“Thwock! Pow! Bam!” – Centre Court resonated with the sound of power. Kyrgios’s strokes exploded. His hands were powerful one moment and subtle the next. He held serve in a flash – no contest. 

Time and again, he stopped the twisting and turning Serb in his tracks. Novak lunged just to try to get his racket on the ball. The weather was sweltering – and Kyrgios was red hot. With a 126-mph ace he collected the first set, thanks to 7 aces and 14 winners. The Aussie blaster was making the man many feel is the GOAT look ordinary. 

When Nick was serving, there were times that the Serb almost seemed like a spectator. As a serve would whiz by him, Novak would simply stride to the other side of the court. 


Photo by Getty

Wimbledon loves its grand and gracious winners – but rebels inevitably have their day, too. And now the man who spits at fans, curses umps, nearly bonked a ballboy with his racket, tanks matches, gets under his foes’ skins and has been fined $800,000 was in control.

But there’s a reason Djokovic has won three straight Wimbledons, has reached 32 Slam finals and hasn’t lost on Centre Court since the dawn of time (well, make that 2013). Early in the second set, when Nole prevailed in a marathon rally, fans in pink shirts and beige bonnets sensed he was gaining his rhythm. “He’s beginning to puff out his chest,” noted Wimbledon Radio. With a let cord winner, Novak went up 3-1 in the second set. In the ninth game, Kyrgios had four break points, but Nole served big, defended beautifully, stayed within himself and soon took the set 6-3.

Kyrgios, who was playing his first major final, began to seethe. He felt the pressure. Tweeter Zachary Gates wrote, “If Nick Kyrgios were in a room by himself, he’d get into an argument with the walls.” 

Nick was hardly in a room by himself. He needed to muster all he had. Instead, he barked at the ump, insisting he throw out a loud drunk who he claimed “had had about 700 drinks.” And he began a spicy, non-stop monologue with his box. The BBC joked that eight-year-old Prince George had “a special opportunity to sit in the first row of the Royal Box and learn some new language.”

A protestor in section 311 briefly interrupted matters, Kyrgios got a code violation, and, amidst the circus, Djokovic retained his focus, hit to the corners and unleashed an array of delicate drop shots. He held with ease while the Aussie labored to hold.

Deep into the third set, Novak fell behind 0-40 – but his forehand scored key winners and his return was deep. And while Nick, the game’s great ringmaster, was constantly complaining to his box, he dropped five straight points and soon lost the third set 6-4.

Then again, we’d been to this rodeo before. Falling behind is hardly a crisis for Novak. He calls on his experience, his vast toolbox and his emotional intelligence and discovers pathways. His returns astound, his flexibility is a weapon, his underrated serve is his ally. He held with stunning ease. Kyrgios said, “Djokovic’s composure is his greatest strength…He just never looks rattled.”

In the decisive fourth-set tiebreak, Kyrgios faltered while Nole read Nick’s serve well, played great defense, absorbed his foe’s power and continually forced him to play one extra shot. 

When Kyrgios netted a backhand, Novak claimed a 4-6, 6-3, 6-4, 7-6 (3) victory to equal Pete Sampras’ mark of seven Wimbledons, He chomped on a blade of grass like a GOAT and spread his arms like an eagle. He recalled that as a five-year-old, high in the Serbian mountains, he’d seen Sampras win Wimbledon and promptly asked his parents to buy him a racket.

Afterwards, Nick said Novak is “a bit of a god – I’m not going to lie.” Kyrgios then revealed his very human sense of vulnerability: “I’m just not supposed to be here. Like, I’m a kid from Canberra…I look back at it and I’m just like, ‘How am I here?…It’s pretty cool.”

What’s also cool is Nick and Nole’s newfound bromance. Referring to his support of Djokovic during his Australian trauma, Kyrgios said, “What I did was not easy. I kind of went against my whole nation…and spoke out.” He added that if people are “going to take arrows in the back for you in public, then you’ve got to have ultimate respect for them.”

Djokovic’s coach Goran Ivanisivic said that what happened to Novak in Australia was shocking and unbelievable, and it was heroic that Nole came back to tennis.

Novak said that after Australia, it was “a huge challenge” emotionally and mentally. He wasn’t feeling himself and “unpleasant situations” kept on happening.

But today the man who in January sat alone in an Australian detention center for six days lifted Wimbledon’s golden trophy for the seventh time. And that’s pure redemption.

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