Novak Djokovic began his third-round match with Alexandr Dolgopolov today by wiping a tear from his eye as he set up for his first serve. It was a painful private moment that had to be lived in public: He had learned earlier this morning that his grandfather, Vladimir, a hero of his, had passed away at 83. (See Vladimir and Novak with the Wimbledon winner’s trophy here.)
Djokovic has said that his grandfather was the person who “always told me to fight.” Novak’s 2-6, 6-1, 6-4 win today over Dolgopolov was a fitting tribute. Djokovic had to fight everything, inside and outside of him, to pull it off—his own early ambivalence, his erratically brilliant opponent, and his swirling emotions. By the end, even the crowd and the ball kids were on Nole's nerves.
But Djokovic battled through all of that, and in the end it seemed that this player who has won so much over the last 15 months won again on instinct. When he needed a break late in the third set, Djokovic called on his best shot, his return of serve, and his best attribute, his defensive skills, to break for 5-4. Then he ended it with his most authoritative service game of the match. Two aces, a service winner, and a painfully triumphant roar later, and he was into the quarterfinals.
On the other side of the net, Dolgopolov’s supreme potential and frustrating deficiencies were both on stark display. On the plus side, here was one of the few players in the world with the skill and deception and touch to hit balls past Djokovic at the baseline and then carve under drop shots that the Serb couldn’t track down at the net. On the minus side, here was a player who, with three break points early in the second set and an opponent who was struggling emotionally, would play his most indifferent game of the match and let him off the hook. When Djokovic saved those three breakers at 2-0 in the second, the cloud that had been following him at the start finally lifted. For Dolgopolov, it was an opportunity squandered.
There was a somber quality inside the center court that, by the end, had built into a deep and conflicted set of emotions for everyone involved. The match wasn’t about forehands and backhands, or even about struggling against adversity in the normal, feel-good way we think about it in sports—there was no easy, joyful release for the winner this time. It was a match that had to be played, and credit Djokovic for playing it, and for finding a way to compete for the fans there and fight the way his grandfather had taught him. It won’t get easier for him this week, but at some point he should be able to look back and realize that he was blessed by the fact that Vladimir lived long enough to hold the Wimbledon trophy with his grandson, and to see him achieve everything he has achieved.