LONDON—Mostly, tennis players occupy a bubble. But there come those moments when the big ball known as Earth—or in this case, a soccer ball—butts its way into the yellow-balled tennis world.
Shortly after 5:00 p.m. this Saturday evening, Kyle Edmund and Novak Djokovic walked on to Centre Court to play their third-round match. With England having won a World Cup soccer game just prior, Wimbledon buzzed loudly. Exciting as it was to have a British player not named Andy Murray one win away from reaching the second week of Wimbledon, the possibility of two great sports triumphs on the same day set the crowd into a tizzy.
According to Djokovic, “it was a Davis Cup-like atmosphere.”
Edmund snapped up the first set, 6-4. He’d won their previous match this spring in Madrid and now appeared primed for a repeat at the place where two years ago, Djokovic had begun his decline.
“Kyle Edmund was in form,” said Djokovic. “He was really, really playing well, hitting the ball clean from both ends, from the baseline, serving well.”
Djokovic didn’t help himself with occasional whining and his habit of frequent ball bouncing before his serve, the latter of which earned him a time violation warning. Once that happened, there even came a Wimbledon rarity: boos.
Said Djokovic, “I thought the crowd's reaction after that was quite unnecessary. A couple guys really, you know, pretending they were coughing and whistling while I was bouncing the ball more or less to the end of the match at that end where I received the time violation.”
WATCH—Match point from Djokovic's win over Edmund at Wimbledon:
Call the final three sets a study in balloon management, of each player looking to manage the crowd. Edmund sought to pump it up, mostly with big serves and powerful forehands. Djokovic went in the opposite direction, seeking to prolong points and either coax Edmund into errors or create openings for terminal groundstrokes. Hardly elegant, mostly gritty, the two grappled with one another for nearly three hours.
Oddly enough, as forcefully as Edmund had played to win the first set, once Djokovic took the second, 6-3, it appeared that only a major meltdown would keep Djokovic from winning. Though far from brilliant, Djokovic merely hunkered down and won the next two sets, 6-2, 6-4. Over the course of the last three sets, he made a stingy 12 unforced errors, compared to 23 for Edmund.
Edmund is still at the stage when a loss like this is more edifying than debilitating. Ranked 50 in the world a year ago, Edmund now is No. 17 and with Murray absent for so long, has also stepped into further prominence as his homeland’s highest ranked player.
Reflecting on his grass-court season, Edmund said, “I think overall I'm happy with the way it's gone. Yeah, just would have liked to have won today, but didn't happen. Yeah, I think overall it's been more positive from my side.”
It will be fascinating to see how Edmund fares later this summer on the North American hard court circuit.
Of course, reaching the second week of a major is hardly significant for Djokovic. But after 24 months of bad losses, injuries and coaching changes, Djokovic has at least survived.
Perhaps the animus between Djokovic and the crowd might well propel him further, fueling the kind of competitive energy he might well need to find his best tennis.
Back in 2008, an article about Djokovic cited something he’d written on his website: “Serbs also have one negative trait, which is envy. As the Serbian saying goes: 'May the neighbour's cow drop dead!' But this must be tolerated, for it is part of life.”
So there it was, a zero-sum sensibility lurking in Djokovic’s past, seeking to find grace and generosity.
How does Djokovic feel about the resurgence of Rafael Nadal and Roger Federer, two men he’d each beaten frequently at the majors? From 2011-‘16, Djokovic won 11 majors (compared to just one for Federer and five for Nadal). But now, amid the resurgence of the Rafa and Roger Show, might the once-dominant Djokovic be even more comfortable as a party crasher?
Strokes of Genius is a world-class documentary capturing the historic 13-year rivalry between tennis icons Roger Federer and Rafael Nadal. It is timed for release as the anticipation crests with Roger as returning champion, 10 years after their famed 2008 Wimbledon championship – an epic match so close and so reflective of their competitive balance that, in the end, the true winner was the sport itself.