After defeating Kevin Anderson in the Wimbledon final on Sunday, Novak Djokovic told ESPN’s Tom Rinaldi that he felt at certain points over the last two years that he would never return to his peak level.
Djokovic’s supreme level of play in Sunday’s final demonstrated that these feelings Novak had were ultimately just that —feelings.
Going from holding all four slams in June of 2016 to the level of tennis Novak had displayed earlier in 2018, by his own admission, was a trying situation.
Sunday, all of the internal doubts — all of the internal questions Djokovic had asked himself — were securely answered. In reality, these questions were answered in the semifinal, after it was clear that the Serbian powerhouse was approaching his highest level of play.
When this match is discussed in future years, it will be done within the context of the Wimbledon semifinal matches which preceded it. Kevin Anderson had to play one of the biggest matches of his career after winning the longest match of his life against John Isner. Djokovic needed 5 hours and 15 minutes to fend off Rafael Nadal in the semifinals and had even less rest than Anderson.
Regardless of whether you feel those six hours and 36 minutes impacted Anderson, the fact of the matter is that Wimbledon, like every other tennis event, is a tournament. It’s not a sequence of isolated matches that have zero impact on one another.
In Sunday’s final, it was clear that Anderson was feeling the effects of Friday more than Djokovic felt his Friday-Saturday journey.
The first two sets were completely dominated by Djokovic. Anderson could simply not find his range and Djokovic was locked in from the start.
Anderson only made 45 percent of his first serves in the opening set, which against Djokovic is the absolute worst thing you could ask for. In the second set, Anderson elevated his first serve percentage to 64 but could make no inroads on Djokovic’s serve. In fact, within the first two sets, Anderson won only 3 of 14 points on Djokovic’s second serve.
Within the first two sets, Anderson failed to dictate the action. He got coerced into playing the way Djokovic wanted to play. Djokovic realized that Anderson was committing a lot of unforced errors and allowed him to unravel. Anderson hit 10 winners and 25 unforced errors within the opening two sets, which by Wimbledon standards is a lot. Wimbledon stat keepers are known to have a very high threshold for determining if a shot is an unforced error. It speaks to the volume of easy shots that Anderson missed within the opening two sets.
What was particularly impressive from Djokovic throughout this match was his ability to withstand pace from Anderson. Throughout the match, balls Anderson would typically turn into forced errors or weak replies — balls missed, or balls hit with little depth from his opponents — were returned with interest from Djokovic.
In the final set of the match, Anderson raised his level. He decided that he was no longer going to allow Djokovic to control the way the match was being played. He took bigger cuts from the baseline at earlier stages of points. This strategy worked effectively for the South African. He produced 16 winners and 7 unforced errors. Additionally, he created six break points and was a point away from capturing the set on five different occasions.
Djokovic, as he has done so many times throughout his career — and as he did so often in the fifth set of his semifinal against Nadal — came up with the goods when he faced adversity. His quality of play soared. He took matters into his own hands at a time when his opponent was dead-set on doing so himself.
At the end of the match, Anderson wasn’t able to produce enough high-quality shots to fend off an all-time great playing the kind of tennis that has allowed him to become an all-time great.
This tournament will leave behind many questions, but none of them will involve Novak Djokovic.