WIMBLEDON, England — How far has Novak Djokovic come in 2018?
Travel back to the Australian Open in January, where he played with an abbreviated service motion and a fragile, preoperative right elbow encased in a compression sleeve.
Recall Indian Wells, Calif., in March, a month after he had surgery, when the Japanese qualifier Taro Daniel knocked Djokovic out in the first round of the BNP Paribas Open as his unforced error count hit 58.
Flash to the Off Broadway confines of Interview Room 2 at Roland Garros Stadium last month, when Djokovic batted away questions with a faraway look after his shocking defeat to the Italian outsider Marco Cecchinato in the French Open quarterfinals.
“I don’t know,” Djokovic said, exasperated. “I don’t know if I’m going to play on grass.”
But he made it to Wimbledon just the same, and there he was on Sunday afternoon in another men’s final, gliding and sliding into the corners, playing fast-twitch trump cards to counter nearly every Kevin Anderson move, and reclaiming his central place in the men’s game by winning, 6-2, 6-2, 7-6 (3).
It was his fourth title at Wimbledon, but, more important for one of the game’s supreme talents, it was his first Grand Slam title in more than two years. He now has 13.
“I did not expect to be back in the top shape already here in Wimbledon so quickly,” Djokovic said. “If you asked me after Roland Garros, I would probably maybe doubt that. At the same time, there is a part of me that always believes in my own abilities, believes in my own quality of tennis, what I possess. Whenever I come to the tournament, and a Grand Slam especially, I believe I can have a good opportunity to fight for the trophy.”
Ranked 21st, Djokovic will be back up to just No. 10 on Monday, but it hardly takes a tennis genius to see that the manner in which he prevailed at the All England Club means that he is back in a broader sense.
“I think he underestimated the fact that being away from the game for six months, and then another three months of slowly coming back is a lot harder than he anticipated,” said Boris Becker, his former coach. “I think he thought he’d get his mojo back quicker. But I’m not surprised that he’s winning Wimbledon, and he will win other majors, because he’s one of the greatest of all time. So if he shows the commitment and the heart and does the homework, there’s no reason he shouldn’t keep winning.”
Djokovic is 31, which once would have been considered over-the-hill for a tennis champion, but that timeline has been extended. The previous six major championships had been won by Djokovic’s career-long measuring sticks: Roger Federer, 36, and Rafael Nadal, 32.
Nadal, fresh off his 11th French Open victory, was in rare grass-court form here, but Djokovic defused the considerable danger in a ferociously contested semifinal over two days and five sets under a closed roof that certainly played to Djokovic’s strengths. But the Serbian star still had ample time to think and to crack.
Instead, he held firm, just like the not-so-distant days in 2015 and 2016, when he dominated the sport and became the first man since Rod Laver in 1969 to hold all four major singles titles.
He held firm again versus Anderson, the 6-foot-8 South African who was shaky in the beginning of his first Wimbledon final. But he was much more dangerous in the third set, as Djokovic fought off five set points on his own serve before taking command for good in the tiebreaker.
Djokovic saved all seven break points he faced in the match and converted all four of his break-point opportunities, quite a feat against a server as fearsome as Anderson is.
“He couldn’t find returns in Paris, not in the other tournaments,” Djokovic’s coach, Marian Vajda, said. “But he found them just in time in this tournament.”
In all, Djokovic put 67 percent of his returns in play against Anderson, and 74 percent throughout the tournament. Those are big numbers on grass.
But his own serve was really the key. He has tinkered with it too often through the years, and felt forced to change it more during his slump as he resisted having surgery on his elbow. But since having the operation in February and then rejoining forces with Vajda in April, he has cleaned up his technique and slowly recovered his rhythm.
His average first-serve speed of 114 miles per hour during the tournament was below his average of 117 during his most recent title here, in 2015. He has resumed bouncing the ball with irritating frequency before delivering his serves, but it worked for him as he found the right combinations and locations.
“He couldn’t really serve in Australia because of the injury,” said Becker, the former No. 1-ranked player who left Djokovic’s team after the 2016 season. “He needed to have the surgery to get the elbow right, and then it’s a question of confidence, of timing and work ethic, and getting it back to the point that, when you are down 15-40, you don’t think about it. It becomes automatic. And I think technically it’s now very sound, and I think the serve was the reason he won against Nadal, and it is also why he is Wimbledon champion.”
Vajda certainly is a big reason as well. He is a jovial, personable character, and a reassuring presence. But he is also a fine technician who knows how to manage Djokovic’s dark and moody side.
It undoubtedly stung Vajda when Djokovic, deep in a funk and an experimental mood, split with his core team in April 2017. But Vajda said he enjoyed the time to finally focus on his family in Bratislava, Slovakia. When Djokovic called him in late March after another first-round loss in Miami, Vajda agreed, after consulting with his family, to ride to the rescue.
Djokovic and Vajda indicated on Sunday night that they plan to continue galloping forward.
“I think Novak was pretty desperate after the Miami Open,” Becker said. “That’s the worst I’ve seen him play. He needed to change, and that’s always a moment when you remember who were your people from day one. And Vajda stands very high on that list, and so I think that was the finest tactical move Nole has done, getting Marian back.”
Brad Stine, Anderson’s coach, pointed downward and said, “Novak was like this.”
Then Stine pointed upward: “Now, he’s back like this. I saw Marian at the French, and he was practically leading Novak around by the nose and telling him, ‘This is what you’re doing.’ And Novak was obviously listening to him, and this is obviously the result now. Novak played great.”
Indeed he did: redirecting power or generating it on his own; winning sliced backhand duels; slapping passing shot winners off perfectly acceptable Anderson approaches.
Both men had good reason to be bone weary. Anderson, who upset No. 1 seed Roger Federer in five sets in the quarterfinals after saving a match point, played more games in a singles tournament here than any man in Wimbledon’s long history. He also played the second-longest match in Grand Slam history to defeat John Isner in a 6-hour-36-minute semifinal that stretched to 26-24 in the fifth set.
That marathon forced Djokovic’s semifinal against Nadal to start late and stretch into a second day, depriving Djokovic of a day of rest before the final.
But he looked sharp and quick from the start, breaking Anderson’s serve in the opening game, just as he did in the second set. He then avoided complications by closing out the victory in straight sets.
His reward: his traditional post-Wimbledon victory snack of fresh grass. “I had a double portion this year; I treated myself,” he said.
The win also gave him the opportunity to celebrate with his 3-year-old son, Stefan, in the stands. He was too young to be at Centre Court as a spectator but was allowed to watch the victory ceremony from the players’ box. Stefan was there again the clubhouse, where his father picked him up and held him close as he accepted congratulations.
“It was one of, if not the biggest, motivations I’ve had for Wimbledon this year,” Djokovic said. “I was visualizing, imagining this moment of him coming to the stands, cherishing this moment with my wife and me and everyone.”
Flash back to Melbourne, to Indian Wells, to Paris, and such a moment seemed much closer to a dream than to reality.
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