LONDON — Ten months ago, Novak Djokovic lay devastated on the pitch at Arthur Ashe Stadium as his elusive Calendar Slam attempt was foiled in the US Open final.
Ten hectic months.
In between, there was a global controversy that ended with Australia being expelled due to his unvaccinated status, as well as Rafael Nadal winning the Australian Open to break the record. major titles. Not to mention Djokovic’s fall from No.1 and his crushing French Open quarter-final loss to Nadal.
But now Djokovic, 35, is ultimately back to the top of the tennis world.
On Sunday, he returned to major glory with a 4-6, 6-3, 6-4, 7-6(3) victory over Nick Kyrgios at Wimbledon on Sunday. The title, his 21st Grand Slam, once seemed a foregone conclusion, but nothing has been predictable or straightforward since his run in New York.
And somehow, all of those hurdles and heartaches made Sunday’s victory in front of a star-studded crowd, which included two future kings of England and Hollywood royalty, all the sweeter. Djokovic remained holed up and focused – despite his opponent’s repeated theatrics on the net – and won his fourth consecutive title, and seventh overall, at the All England Club.
Although he was calm and collected for most of the match, he couldn’t hide his emotions at the end – raising his hands in triumph and letting out an exaggerated sigh of relief.
“I lost my words about what this tournament, what this trophy means to me,” Djokovic said on the pitch. “It has always been and will remain the most special tournament in my heart, the one that motivated me to start playing tennis.”
Djokovic’s status for the 2022 US Open is in doubt due to pandemic-related US entry restrictions, and remaining unable to apply for an Australian visa at least at present, Djokovic knew this might be his only chance in the foreseeable future to win a major title. He seized the opportunity, knowing it might be his last chance at a Grand Slam before Roland-Garros next spring.
He made sure it mattered.
This time a year ago, after Djokovic collected his last material from the All England Club, things were different. He was on pace for the elusive Calendar Slam, joining only two men in history to do so, and was even lucky enough to join Steffi Graf as the only player to win the Golden Slam at the upcoming Olympics.
His stay in Tokyo was a disappointment. He was upset by Alexander Zverev in the semi-finals, then lost to Pablo Carreno Busta and lost his temper in the bronze medal match.
But that didn’t lessen the excitement for what he could do in New York. All eyes were on him as he sought to do the near-impossible by winning every Grand Slam of 2021 and breaking the three-way tie, with Nadal and Roger Federer, for the most majors by one player. male. But in the final, he was routed in three sets by Daniil Medvedev.
And then, well, 2022 happened. Djokovic admitted the experience in Melbourne affected him.
“This year has certainly not been the same as previous years,” he said. “It started the way it started and it definitely affected me in the first few months of the year. I wasn’t feeling great in general. I mean, mentally, emotionally, I wasn’t in the right place. place.”
—Novak Djokovic (@DjokerNole) July 10, 2022
Djokovic had only played one tournament before April – in Dubai, where he revealed he ‘just didn’t feel like he was on the court’. Then he missed events like Indian Wells and Miami due to his inability to enter the United States.
Medvedev took first place in the ranking. When he returned for the European clay season, Djokovic lost his opening match in Monte Carlo and fell in the final of his hometown tournament at the Serbia Open. There was a win at the Italian Open, but in Paris, where it mattered most, he couldn’t defend his title. Nadal, who reclaimed the major record at the Australian Open, extended his lead by winning the No.22.
It was a staggering turn of events in less than a year at the top of the game’s pecking order.
Djokovic’s coach Goran Ivanisevic, himself a former Wimbledon champion, said he was not surprised that it took time for Djokovic to regain his previous mental and physical shape.
“[It] It’s huge what happened to him,” Ivanisevic said on Sunday. “We all expected from him after a few weeks, ‘OK, let’s forget about Australia, go back and train.’ It doesn’t happen that way.”
Djokovic opted to skip all grass-court events and arrived at Wimbledon – ranked No. 3 but seeded in the absence of Medvedev and Zverev – in a sea of uncertainty. How would he play? When would he play next? He couldn’t answer.
But what he did, perhaps in the absence of answers, was show another side of his personality, posting videos and photos of his family on his social media and asking his young son Stefan to join him for high profile training sessions. His wife, Jelena, not always present during his matches, was frequently seen in his dressing room. He posted memes on his Instagram Story and joked at press conferences.
20 of the last 22 Grand Slam men’s singles titles have gone to Federer, Nadal and Djokovic.
We know the other two 😉 pic.twitter.com/najStY5pmD
— US Tennis Open (@usopen) July 10, 2022
On the grass in London, he lost his level in his opener against Kwon Soon-woo, dropping the second set, but then worked his way into the fourth round. There was a slight setback against Tim van Rijthoven in the fourth round, but his biggest test of the tournament came in the quarters against Jannik Sinner. Losing the first two sets, it looked like Djokovic was facing another early exit. But a pep talk in the bathroom invigorated him and he dominated the final three sets for a comeback win. He had a slow start against Cameron Norrie in the semi-finals, but then left nothing to chance.
And on Sunday, against often electrifying Kyrgios, one of tennis’ most loved and hated players, Djokovic initially struggled with Kyrgios’ powerful serve – the Aussie was down just five points in the service in the first set – but Djokovic finally understood his eliminated opponent. As Kyrgios grew increasingly frustrated, yelling at his team and himself and at one point even throwing his water bottle away during a substitution, Djokovic jumped at every opportunity.
Kyrgios called Djokovic “a bit of a god” on the pitch, and later praised Djokovic’s unflappable nature to reporters.
“He’s really calm,” Kyrgios said. “It’s weird, I felt like he didn’t do anything out of the ordinary today. He obviously came back the way he comes back. I feel like he’s just a great returner. But he was so calm. That’s what I was just thinking to myself. In great moments, it was like he had never been shaken.
“I feel like that’s his greatest strength, he never looks shaken. He just looks completely within himself all the time.”
After the match, Djokovic admitted that he had no idea when he would play a competitive tennis match next. He expressed hope that COVID restrictions would be eased ahead of the US Open or that he could be granted a bye, but knew nothing was guaranteed and insisted he had no intention to get vaccinated.
Yet despite his declining rankings and so much ambiguity over the coming months, Djokovic didn’t seem fazed. Instead, he seemed quite content with what he had accomplished.
“I’m on vacation,” Djokovic said. “Whether or not I play a tournament soon, I will definitely rest for the next couple of weeks as it has been quite an exhausting and demanding time for me the past few months. Lots of tennis, which I was very happy about.
“I got what I wanted here.”