Losing the Fear
by Pete Bodo
LONDON—He was the guy who wasn't supposed to win this thing, the loose-jointed, long-limbed interloper from the unfamiliar, exotic outpost, Serbia. His hair looked like a pelt and his clipped accent suggested something harsh and indurate, something that might break, but would not bend and yield. And he had the unenviable task of stepping into a fascinating, beautifully-balanced and universally celebrated relationship between two great tennis players, Roger Federer and Rafael Nadal—an affiliation in which mutual admiration often appeared in danger of overwhelming and diluting that which most people wanted the bond to be, a rivalry.
It wasn't easy being Novak Djokovic because it's never easy being the spoiler, or the third wheel, and it was especially difficult in those early days when Djokovic was still new on the scene. Slowly, though, he began to win us over. We began to see that the loose-limbs harbored something neither Federer nor Nadal really had, an astonishing, unprecedented degree of elasticity that would enable Djokovic to control balls that most of his peers could only lunge for as they whistled by. That those long limbs of the interloper enabled him to eat up ground and reach and re-direct balls as if they were coming off the flipper of a pinball machine.
At the same time, Djokovic revealed that he has an unexpectedly impudent side, undercutting that vague sense of unease he planted in some with his militaristic bearing. That hair? It began to look kind of cute; tell the truth, haven't you at some point wondered what it would be like to run your palm over it? But that spoiler thing, that was hard to get over. That Roger and Rafa Show was the longest running entertainment in tennis (You'll laugh, you'll cry, its better than Cats!) and it seemed downright misanthropic to expect, never mind wish, that it would end, that we would move on.
Well, today we officially moved on. The death grip in which Roger and Rafa have held Wimbledon since 2003 is broken. Federer has stalled in the quarterfinals in three of the last six Grand Slam events he's played, and today Djokovic beat the defending Wimbledon champion Nadal in four tense, gritty sets to bag his first Wimbledon title. The score, 6-4, 6-1, 1-6, 6-3, articulates the jagged, uneven nature of this odd clash—it was an alternating battle for domination, simple enough stuff, ruled for almost the entire way by Djokovic. But the fact that Djokovic could impose himself on Nadal so comprehensively, for such long periods, surely was surprising. This was not a routine win, this was a declaration. I'm here, and I'm here to stay.
For Djokovic, today's match was the fruition of a long, enormous, ennervating process by which he had to overtake two men who were at their absolute peak at exactly the moment that Djokovic was trying to emerge and establish himself as a potential rival. If there was more than a glint of serendipity in Federer's debut during the end of the Pete Sampras era; the same could not be said for the task Djokovic faced at around the time he won his first major, the Australian Open of 2008.
"Well, we all know the careers of Nadal and Federer. We don't need to spend words again. They have been the two most dominant players in the world the last five years," Djokovic said after his win today. "They have won most of the majors we are playing on.
"So sometimes it did feel a little bit frustrating when you kind of get to the later stages of a Grand Slam, meaning last four, last eight, and then you have to meet them. They always come up with their best tennis when it matters the most.
"But, look, you know, it's a process of learning, a process of developing and improving as a tennis player, as a person, and just finding the way to mentally overcome those pressures and expectations and issues that you have.
"I always believed that I have quality to beat those two guys. I always believed I have quality to win majors, Grand Slams, and that was the only way I could be here in this position, you know. I mean, I have full respect for those two guys, what they have done. Anytime I play them, I mean, it's a great match. But the mental approach has to be positive. You know, (you tell yourself) I have to win this match. There's no other way."
This year, Djokovic was in a position to believe it when he said that to himself. And just as important, his rivals were a little more disposed to believe it, too. Perhaps oddly, it all goes back to the winter of 2010, and that win by Serbia in the Davis Cup. A reporter who spoke with Djokovic's mother told him that she had said that Davis Cup triumph finally taught Djokovic to "play without fear."
"Well, if my mother says that, then it's like that, you know. There is nothing else I can say." Djokovic laughed along with everyone else at his analysis. But he went on in serious vein. "No, really, it is. . . After the Davis Cup win I was full of life, full of energy, eager to come back to the tennis court, eager to play some more, win some other tournaments. In a sentence, I lost my fear. I believed in my abilities more than ever. Australia was one of the best tournaments I played in my life."
That might be the case, but Wimbledon was not far behind. The salient points of the final were the beginning, where an unexpected and out-of-character lapse by Nadal resulted in the pair of forehand errors that gave Djokovic a first set—that, to that point, had been fought over on fairly even terms. Djokovic dominated the second set, but he experienced a lapse of his own to lose the third. The convenient interpretation is that he got tight; the reality more surprising.
"I think I went the opposite way," he said. "I relaxed a little bit too much in the start of the third set. I wasn't focused. . . It was kind of my fault letting him back to the match. But in the fourth set I was in the lead for all the time. The first game was very important to hold the serve. After that, it was really great tennis."
I have to veer from this celebration of Djokovic's remarkable week (As he said of locking up the No. 1 ranking and winning Wimbledon, all within a 72-hour period: "I managed to achieve a lifetime goal and I managed to make my dream come true, all in three days' time. It's just an incredible feeling that I'm never going to forget. This is the best day of my tennis career.") to draw some attention to how admirably Nadal took this not-so-small setback. Here's an excerpt from his thoughtful, touching and supremely honest—and classy—press conference.
When you read the transcript, you'll find this critical extract buried in what had to be the longest response he's ever given in a presser:
"Probably the mental part is little bit dangerous for me, because when I arrive to the 5-4, I played a bad game with 30-love. When I arrived to 4-3 of the fourth set, I played another bad game with my serve. That's what I say: to win these kind of matches, I have to play well, these kind of points can change the match.
"When I had the break point at the first set, at the first game of the fourth set, I didn't play well that point. That was a big moment for me. Because I came back after 6-1, start the fourth with a break can change everything. I didn't play well these moments. That's what happened in Indian Wells, that's what happened in Miami, and that's what happened here. I don't want to count in Madrid and Rome because he played much better than me.
"But these three times, that's what happened. And to change that is probably be little bit less nervous than these times, play more aggressive, and all the time be confident with myself. That's what I gonna try next time. If not, I gonna be here explaining the sixth."
When it was all over, we all witnessed a truly unusual event at Wimbledon—a screw-up in the presentation ceremony. The microphones used by Sue Barker and the finalists in the on-court post-match interview wouldn't function. When Rafa realized that he was not being heard, he looked befuddled, glanced around, and asked, "What happened?"
Indeed. He may be asking himself some variation on that question for some time.