Wimbledon18

OPEN ERA AT 50: DJOKOVIC’S SECOND BEGINNING

by

Matt Zemek

When he came to the 2010 U.S. Open, Novak Djokovic had a perfectly solid and respectable career — actually, something much more than that. He had a major title. He had already demonstrated his considerable capabilities at Masters tournaments, winning five and making 11 finals plus several more semifinals. He was the No. 3 player in the world behind Roger Federer and Rafael Nadal, but to be more precise about it, he was No. 3 in a strong way, not the way Grigor Dimitrov reached No. 3 or the way in which Dominic Thiem became World No. 4. In any other era of men’s professional tennis, Djokovic likely would have had anywhere from four to seven majors based on his body of work through August of 2010.

Rafael Nadal stopped Djokovic in the semifinals of Roland Garros in 2007 and 2008, and at Wimbledon in 2007. Federer halted Djokovic three straight years at the U.S. Open, once in a final and twice in the semis, from 2007-2009. Djokovic’s consistency was laudable and noticeable… but the same two men stood in his path. Entering the 2010 U.S. Open, Djokovic — despite doing better than nearly all of his peers on a regular basis — was absorbing the sting of seeing his ambitions thwarted at the majors.

The first beginning for Djokovic came at that U.S. Open. By escaping Viktor Troicki in the first round, beating Federer in a memorable semifinal — after saving two match points — and then standing up to Nadal in a high-quality final he lost, Djokovic gained the large new measure of belief which carried him into 2011, which became his first magnificent and dominant season on tour. This decade, Djokovic has been the best player in tennis. Nadal and Federer have enjoyed a stirring resurgence in 2017 and 2018 while Djokovic has dealt with injuries, but from 2011 through 2016, Djokovic delivered two of the best full seasons in tennis history while doing what neither Nadal nor Federer have ever been able to do… and likely never will: Win four straight majors (2015 Wimbledon through the 2016 French Open). The 2010 U.S. Open therefore represents the foremost “before and after” moment of Djokovic’s career, the “B.C. and A.D.” of his tennis existence.

As important as the 2010 U.S. Open was to Djokovic’s career, that “first beginning” was followed four years later by a second beginning. It’s true that Djokovic was far better in 2012 and 2013 than he was in 2009 and 2010, the two seasons which led to his first beginning. Nevertheless, in 2012 and 2013, Djokovic gradually lost his footing — to a small degree, but still enough for Nadal to supplant him as the best player in the world at the 2013 U.S. Open. Nadal won two majors in 2013. Rafa pulled off the incredibly rare Canada-Cincinnati-U.S. Open triple, something neither Djokovic nor Federer had ever done. Djokovic could still be counted on to make the final of most major tournaments, but he didn’t regularly win in those two years. He had become like the man who was Andy Murray’s coach at the time: Ivan Lendl, who made a large number of major finals (19) but lost most of them (11).

Djokovic and his fans entered the 2014 season wondering if a second 2011-style climb to total supremacy was possible. To that end, Djokovic brought aboard Boris Becker, whose post-playing career was marked by a BBC commentary gig in which he vocalized a lot of obvious truths and didn’t seem to add much to broadcasts. The often-superficial quality of Becker’s television commentary made many people — including myself — to view Djokovic’s hire of Becker as an unwise decision. When Stan Wawrinka knocked Djokovic out of the 2014 Australian Open quarterfinals, I was one of many people who wondered what Djokovic had gotten himself into. It didn’t seem that his career was headed toward a second resurrection, and when Nadal beat him at Roland Garros in the 2014 final, nothing seemed about to change.

Then came 2014 Wimbledon. This was the second beginning for the player who — in the face of Fedal’s uncommon dominance — climbed above them all not once (in 2011), but twice, and with an even more emphatic level of superiority in 2015 and the first half of 2016. It is a double achievement which still boggles the mind and will always remain a towering feat. Djokovic’s ability to achieve greatness on an epic scale — joining his two main rivals — is a central reason why this era of men’s tennis became as transcendent as it has been.

2014 Wimbledon — chiefly the final against Federer — formed the cornerstone of this second great ascendancy by Djokovic.

Since the 2012 Australian Open final, here’s how Djokovic’s major finals went:

— 2012 Roland Garros: Lost to Nadal

— 2012 U.S. Open: Lost to Andy Murray

— 2013 Australian Open: Defeated Murray

— 2013 Wimbledon: Lost to Murray

— 2013 U.S. Open: Lost to Nadal

— 2014 Roland Garros: Lost to Nadal

For himself and for Becker, Djokovic needed to change the conversation at the majors in 2014 in order to walk away from the year with a sense that he could once again reign over the rest of the tour, chiefly Nadal. Federer, in 2014, was coming off his annus horribilis of 2013, when his 36 major quarterfinal streak ended at the hands of Sergiy Stakhovsky at Wimbledon; he got injured after Wimbledon; and lost in the fourth round of the U.S. Open to Tommy Robredo, looking like a very pale imitation of his former self. Federer made the semis in Australia in 2014 but then lost to Ernests Gulbis in the fourth round of the French Open, showing that his clay game had eroded. When Federer came to Wimbledon in 2014, he wanted to wipe away his 2013 nightmare and remind himself — more than anyone else — that Centre Court was still his great citadel.

When Federer was able to make the 2014 Wimbledon final, he achieved that goal of reaffirmation. Djokovic had beaten Nadal to win Wimbledon in 2011, but he had never taken down Federer on Centre Court or anywhere else inside the All England Club. As awful as Federer’s 2013 season was, Djokovic’s scratchy semifinal performance against Grigor Dimitrov did not leave the impression that he was ready to change his spots in major finals. Djokovic faced the greater burden of proof.

He played most of the 2014 Wimbledon final like a man intent on changing the course of history.

Djokovic outplayed Federer for nearly four full sets. He was clearly the better player in the third-set tiebreaker which gave him a two-sets-to-one lead. He then stormed to a 5-2 lead in the fourth and seemed ready to make a relatively businesslike kill of Wimbledon’s seven-time champion.

Then came a house of horrors, a series of occurrences which — if part of a scripted drama — would have seemed meant to torment Djokovic.

Serving for the championship at 5-3, Djokovic fell behind 30-40 and fell down on break point. Federer got back on serve at 5-4. Djokovic had championship point on Federer’s serve at 5-4 and 30-40. Federer hit a serve ruled a fault, but a HawkEye challenge showed the ball was in for an ace and deuce. Federer held for 5-5. Djokovic, watching his reality shift 180 degrees, was broken at 5-5, and before he could blink, Federer had won five games in a row to take the match to a fifth set.

Then came the moment Djokovic and his fans will always remember: 3-3, 30-40, Federer one break point conversion away from having another title — and another gut-punch for Djokovic — at his doorstep. Djokovic could have allowed his world to collapse in that moment, but instead — in a manner akin to the 2010 U.S. Open semifinals — Djokovic hit two of his best forehands all day. He drew a forced error and got to deuce, then holding for 4-3. The high-wire act of a third set continued to 5-4, when two quality Federer serves were fired back at him with interest. Djokovic played a gleaming return game and broke Federer’s serve for the title which had been on the verge of slipping away just moments earlier.

The fact that Djokovic won was impressive on its own terms, but the fact that Djokovic won precisely after so many negative events had cascaded down upon him is what made his achievement a million times more substantial… and significant. One can’t look at the 2014 Wimbledon final — in all of its details — and say that it had nothing to do with the Pax Djokovic of 2015 and the first half of 2016. Moreover, had Djokovic not gone through this specific experience in the 2014 Wimbledon final, the 2015 U.S. Open final — which took on a very similar trajectory in the fourth set — might not have unfolded the way it did.

If the 2010 U.S. Open gave rise to Djokovic’s first great beginning in 2011, the 2014 Wimbledon final led to Nole’s second great beginning in 2015.

Some matches are significant as “planters of seeds which lead to bigger moments later on.” Other matches are memorable and historic in their own right, crowning champions in the present moment. For Novak Djokovic, the 2014 Wimbledon final was both. It is one of the most important — and immediately satisfying — matches he ever will play.

Source: Matthew Stockman/Getty Images Europe

 

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