Semi-restored. Semi-rebuilt. Semi-renewed. Those notions speak to partial efforts, but Novak Djokovic looks like a fully revived tennis player now.
No, this doesn’t mean he will beat Rafael Nadal in a blockbuster match at Wimbledon on Friday afternoon, but it does mean that — after months of the tennis community saying he was “back,” only for him to then lose a match he easily could have won — he has truly earned the right to say he stands in a place where he belongs: not only against Rafa, but in the semifinals of a major, the semifinals of Wimbledon.
Yes, if Djokovic beats Nadal on Friday, he will be favored to win Wimbledon a fourth time and win a 13th major title. Yes, if he beats Nadal, he will have powered through one of the two formidable obstacles of his career. Yes, he does have that big hill to climb before it can be said that this 2018 Wimbledon is truly his to lose. (Nadal has never lost a Wimbledon semifinal and is especially strong in major semifinals, where the Spaniard has lost only three times in his career, a glistening 24-3 overall mark.)
Nevertheless, the fact that the challenge of Nadal has not yet been surmounted should not make it premature to announce Djokovic’s restoration.
There’s nothing “semi” about it. It’s more real than it has ever been. The return to a major final and a trophy ceremony on Sunday isn’t yet there, but the main-event clash with another member of the Big Three has been established. It’s hard to think that Djokovic won’t give Nadal a battle royale on Friday, but even if he doesn’t, he can say that he has made a major semifinal for the first time since 2016. He can say he has met Rafa at a major again for the first time in three years (2015 Roland Garros). He can taste the familiar tensions and thrills of a best-of-five-set match against Nadal, ideal preparation for another possible meeting at the U.S. Open, where his hardcourt prowess and added match play might put him in the ultimate driver’s seat.
The outlook before returning to Marian Vajda as head coach was certainly bleak — that much can’t be denied — but as soon as that necessary change was made, one could see Djokovic slowly making his way back up the ladder. He might have gotten stuck on several occasions, but for each time he got stuck, he then took a few steps up that ladder. Progress was not marked by enormous single-tournament gains, but more by a gradual process of finding his way.
Making the semifinals of Rome was one important step (marked also by playing Nadal and testing his game against the best).
Making the quarterfinals of Roland Garros was not as far as he wanted to go — playing Dominic Thiem in the semifinals was an intended target before the tournament began — but Djokovic still managed situations well in the first week of that tournament despite being, according to Serbian journalist Sasa Ozmo, well below 100 percent of his best self. (Ozmo said this to Tennis With An Accent founder Saqib Ali on a TWAA podcast during the French Open.)
Making the finals at Queen’s Club and playing a high-level final against eventual winner Marin Cilic marked another step in Djokovic’s 2018 evolution and reemergence. He still didn’t walk away with a trophy, but he still moved closer to that longed-for place of wholeness.
Now, with another Nadal showdown on the horizon, Djokovic is “there” — in the sense that he is playing a Big Three foe in the end stages of a major, his game not perfect but his instincts and responses right where they need to be after a four-set win against Kei Nishikori in the quarterfinals on Wednesday.
Djokovic had his ups and downs against Nishikori, but he handled a moment of supreme pressure — triple break point, down 0-40 on serve early in the third — with perfect equilibrium and razor-sharp strokes which lifted him out of trouble. That 0-40 save mirrored Kei’s 0-40 escape which propelled Japan’s finest tennis player to a second-set win. Djokovic came on like a freight train and dominated the whole of the third and fourth sets after that one moment of pronounced difficulty. This was the way a 12-time major champion was used to strutting about the court, not the still-hesitant player who took a 5-2 lead in the fourth set over Marco Cecchinato in the Roland Garros quarterfinals and, minutes later, found himself walking off the court in defeat.
This was the full Djokovic package — there was nothing “semi” about this renewal except for the semifinal which now awaits.
Did you doubt that Djokovic would get back here? Before Vajda reentered the picture as head coach, a skeptical attitude might have been warranted, but as soon as the familiar voice and presence once again became part of Djokovic’s regular rhythms, it seemed highly likely that this iconic figure in tennis, who watched Roger Federer and Rafael Nadal win the last six major titles, would get back to the top of the mountain. He might not get there this Friday and Sunday at Wimbledon, but who will think he won’t lift more major trophies at this point?
We watched Federer solve problems in 2017 and win more majors.
We watched Nadal go through his two-year wilderness period in 2015 and 2016 before capturing two majors in 2017.
Djokovic is every bit the caliber of player Federer and Nadal are, a reality which shouldn’t be obscured by raw numbers such as 20, 17 and 12 — you know what those numbers are.
If the Big Three era has taught us anything, it is that the greatest of great champions figure things out, one way or another.
Novak Djokovic is figuring things out — and there’s nothing “semi” about this process. It looks pretty whole to me.
It could look even more complete in four days’ time on Sunday.