#Wimbledon Wimbledon 2021

Novak Djokovic, a champion for every day

The way in which Novak Djokovic won Wimbledon is not new in the Big 3 era. Djokovic was a master of match management, getting through matches in straight sets even when not playing near his absolute best. He easily could have lost the third set against Denis Kudla, or the second set against Marton Fucsovics, but in the five to 10 minutes of those sets when he really, really needed to shore up his game, he was there.

At the end of all three sets against Denis Shapovalov, he was there.

Novak Djokovic is there. He is always present — not just physically, but holistically. He sends the message to an opponent that he won’t miss a shot when all the chips are on the poker table. He isn’t climbing a mountain. He IS the mountain.

He is there. He is Mount Everest.

His opponent is the one who must climb over him — and match pressure, and the whirl and tumult of the moment — to win.

Djokovic’s command of the inner game of tennis, which Timothy Gallwey first wrote about in 1974, is so complete at this point that all doubt has vanished from his game in any supremely important situation.

This doesn’t mean Djokovic achieves perfection as a measure of raw quality. He displayed “God Mode” tennis in the first two sets of the 2016 Australian Open semifinals against Roger Federer, in the fourth set against Rafael Nadal in the 2021 Roland Garros semifinals, and at other high points in his luminous career, but most of this Wimbledon was spent in second gear, a natural product of having only two weeks to recuperate after Roland Garros.

No one should have expected Djokovic to dominate Wimbledon, given the short turnaround from Paris. The A-game version of Djokovic — seen against Nadal and in the latter stages of the Roland Garros final against Stefanos Tsitsipas — had done what it needed to do. Nole came to SW19 knowing he had poured out his body and soul to conquer Rafa and Paris. He would need to conserve energy and manage situations at Wimbledon.

Could anyone have possibly managed situations better than Djokovic did? No.

He won 18 straight sets when NOT playing his A-game in most of those sequences. He calmly bounced back — as everyone knew he would — from the loss of the first set against Matteo Berrettini in the Wimbledon final on Sunday.

He didn’t win matches 2, 2 and 1 for most of the fortnight. He didn’t produce unplayable, untouchable tennis, and he was never going to do that because of the short Paris-to-Wimbledon transition.

Yet, he always had his No. 1 weapon: He was always present, always fully aware of exactly what he needed to do in a given moment.

Rafael Nadal and Novak Djokovic are the two toughest competitors I have ever witnessed in men’s tennis. Neither one takes a back seat to the other. They are both equally tough. It wouldn’t be fair or right to assign an advantage in this regard.

What Djokovic possesses — and what has him in great position to soon overtake both Rafa and Roger Federer in the all-time major title race — is an ability to carry the body and the mind through tournaments with equal measures of care.

Let’s be clear about one thing: Rafael Nadal has triumphed over me and anyone else who, a decade ago, questioned his playing style relative to the need to attain longevity in tennis. I plainly did worry that Rafa was going to leave himself punched out — exhausted and worn down on a deeper level — if he continued to play the way he does. Yet, he is still out here at age 35, a more-than-relevant factor with a great chance to continue to win big titles. He has won two of the last four U.S. Opens and will be the foremost obstacle to Djokovic’s historic bid for a Grand Slam this September in New York. Nadal has attained considerable longevity, refuting anyone who questioned his capacity to display that attribute.

Yet, Nadal’s longevity doesn’t appear likely to match Djokovic’s staying power over the next several years.

There is only one year between these two men — admittedly, part of Nadal’s longevity flows from his large number of big-stage matches at a younger age than Djokovic — but doesn’t it seem that Djokovic is in position to remain at a higher level longer than Rafa will?

Tennis is difficult, punishing and exhausting. It requires every part of a person to show up — body, mind and soul. All members of the Big 3 — all now owning 20 majors — display the full commitment to tennis which produces long-term holistic brilliance. These are all paragons of competitive quality with skills which have become fully actualized. All three men arrived at their mid-30s still playing high-level tennis and redefining what is possible.

Yet, among the three, Djokovic — though only one year younger than Nadal — seems built for an especially extended Indian summer in which the autumn of his career is held at a distance. Djokovic, the complete person’s tennis player, just won the Novak Double Slam in Paris, something Nadal and Federer never did. Now, he comes to New York for the U.S. Open with the Grand Slam up for grabs. Rafa and Roger never got to that point, either.

Djokovic has already won four majors in a row — which Nadal and Federer haven’t achieved — and now he can win four straight in a calendar year, at age 34.

What Djokovic did at this Wimbledon — managing matches and resources with perfectly-calibrated awareness — isn’t new. The Big 3’s collective tennis empire was built on getting through Week 1 with minimal stress. Djokovic is the one doing that right now. He did it the past six weeks at two different majors.

What is striking about this latest Djokovic championship — his sixth at Wimbledon, passing Bjorn Borg, and a major which sets up a possible Grand Slam in New York — is that it came so soon after a draining Roland Garros.

In 2015, 2018, and 2019, Djokovic had three weeks to recuperate from Roland Garros and rise to the moment at Wimbledon. This year, he had only two. In 2016, Djokovic went all the way in Paris but had fully emptied the tank to the extent that he was less than fully healthy in the second half of the 2016 season.

This year’s Roland Garros was supremely demanding, much as it was five years ago. Djokovic played five sets in the fourth round, four tough ones (against Berrettini) in the quarters, four in the semis, and five in the final against Tsitsipas. Djokovic played over four hours in each of his last two matches in France. That was a very heavy lift, and he didn’t have a three-week cushion in which to fully decompress before Wimbledon.

Djokovic is a champion for every day because he had to wake up each day over the past four weeks — the two preceding Wimbledon, and the two which occupied Wimbledon — absorbing every last bit of rest and refreshment available to him without losing the crucial measure of focus needed to keep his eyes on the prize.

What Djokovic just did would have been a massive lift and a remarkable feat in any set of circumstances. That he did so at age 34 — winning an eighth major title since turning 31, which is the same as Jimmy Connors’ career-long major title haul — shows how brilliantly he is carrying his body and mind together.

Being awake to the needs, challenges and possibilities of every day — no shortcuts, no falsity, no off ramps from the necessary path — produces this kind of outcome in the latter stages of a tennis career.

Federer and Nadal have certainly handled this aging process with great deftness, care, and skill in their own right. We don’t have to pretend they haven’t done so.

Djokovic, however, is carrying out this process even better. His ownership of every day’s given needs is leading to his ownership of 20 major titles and, one would think, several more to come.

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