LONDON—Who said the rankings in tennis don’t make any sense? Tomorrow Novak Djokovic becomes No. 1 in the world for the first time. Today he won Wimbledon, also for the first time, by registering his first victory over world No. 2 Rafael Nadal at a Grand Slam. For once, the sport has it all in sync.
Two days ago, Jo-Wilfried Tsonga was asked to describe Djokovic’s game after their semifinal. The Frenchman, with awe in his quiet voice, said, simply, that the Serb had been “everywhere.” If anything, Djokovic was in even more places today. Nadal came out determined to change the dynamic of their rallies by going down the line with his forehand, to Djokovic’s forehand, rather than letting the Serb beat him with his best shot, his backhand. It didn’t work. After five games Djokovic was moving instinctively in that direction and answering with his own down the line forehand winners. Even more decisive, though, was Djokovic’s return of serve. Nadal served brilliantly through much of the first set. In his last two service games, he made nine of 10 first serves at one stage, most in the 125-m.p.h. range, but where did they get him? Down set point at 4-5, 30-40 is where. On that point, Nadal tried another down the line forehand, but, having been burned by Djokovic too many times, he went for too much and hit it wide. The tone was set.
Nothing, not even his best, was working for Nadal. It only got worse in the second set, as Djokovic began to control the rallies with his forehand. It was a rare sight indeed to glimpse Nadal, rather than his opponent, on a string. But that’s where Djokovic had him. He played Tennis 101—serve wide, hit into the open court, wrong foot on the slippery grass when possible—at the highest level it can be played. More than that, Djokovic stole Nadal’s own answers from him. Down a break point in the second game of the second set, Nadal came forward and tried some vintage cat and mouse, a game he almost always wins. Not this time: Djokovic tracked down a slyly angled drop shot by Rafa and angled it back to a spot where the Spaniard, for once, couldn’t get to it. Cat was mouse; mouse was cat; Grand Slam second-fiddle was soon Grand Slam champ.
From my perspective in the press box seats in the corner, the biggest difference in this match, one that made itself felt in obvious and not-so-obvious ways, was in their backhands. Their serves were similar today. Their forehands are both excellent. Both men move as well as anyone who has ever played tennis. But Djokovic has a better backhand. It’s a smoother, more versatile stroke; it’s much better on returns; he can use it as a second forehand and control points with it; if it drops anywhere short, he can put balls away with it; and perhaps most important, Djokovic never has to run around it and leave one side of his court open. We talk about his ability to scramble and get anything along the baseline, and he is second-to-none in that department. For three out of four sets, Nadal had nowhere to go. But part of that skill is also a product of Djokovic’s positioning. The excellence of his backhand allows him to patrol the middle of the court.
Nadal, on the other hand, despite a third-set rally, was never at his best. He said afterward that he had been nervous, and that he couldn’t find the rhythm that he had in the last three sets against Murray. His performance reminded me a little of Maria Sharapova’s yesterday. Just at the point when we thought we would see a few vintage running, flying winners from Nadal, they didn’t come; they flew long this time, they caught the net this time. In the final game, just at the point when we thought Nadal would buckle down and make the Wimbledon-final rookie sweat, it was Nadal who drilled two routine forehands out. Djokovic was the calmer and more consistent player in the clutch. This makes five straight final-round losses to Djokovic for Rafa. As good as his match-up with Federer is, that’s as bad as his match-up with the Serb appears to be at the moment. It’s Djokovic, with his forehand into Nadal’s backhand, who has the go-to play in their rallies.
Still, this match didn’t come without its proverbial moments of truth. The first came at the start of the fourth set. Nadal had made his expected move in the third, and the crowd was fully behind him as he reached break point at the start of the fourth. Djokovic’s forehand had gone off, and he’d begun to cede the rallies to Rafa. But he stopped the bleeding at break point with two strong serves—his most improved shot of 2011 was there for him again.
What Djokovic did in his second moment of truth was even more impressive. Three years ago, Rafael Nadal was serving for his first Wimbledon title against Roger Federer at 8-7 in the fifth set. After losing the first point, he decided to serve and volley for the first time in the entire match. He won the point and went on to hold. It was roundly lauded, by myself and others, as a moment of competitive genius. Today, Novak Djokovic served for his first Wimbledon title at 5-3 in the fourth against Nadal. He lost the first point on a nervous first forehand wide. At 30-30, he took a page from the Genius of Nadal book and served and volleyed for one of the few times all day. It worked like a charm, and he went on to hold.
“That’s what champions do,” we like to say. And the sport's biggest champions do it on this court. Novak Djokovic already knew he would be No. 1 when he started this match. Now he knows, with a dream-fulfilling win at his favorite tournament, with a calm and crafty play at just the right moment, with a victory over a two-time winner, that he can do everything a champion does. Tennis has a new one. And a new One.