The Rally: Novak Djokovic’s meteoric resurrection at Wimbledon 2018

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Novak Djokovic matched rivals Roger Federer and Rafael Nadal with a Grand Slam title of his own in this throwback season, at Wimbledon. (Getty Images)

After Sunday's Wimbledon final—won by Novak Djokovic, 6-2, 6-2, 7-6 (3)—Joel Drucker and Steve Tignor discuss the Serb’s meteoric resurrection, Kevin Anderson's match too far, and ask the question: Is the Big 4 era...starting over?

WATCH—Novak Djokovic wins his fourth Wimbledon title:


Steve,

“We were somewhere around Barstow on the edge of the desert when the drugs began to take hold.”  Those are the opening lines to journalist Hunter Thompson’s classic, Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas. Like Thompson, so many of us who attend Wimbledon and attempt to be in the know—journalists, analysts, commentators, agents, tournament directors, coaches, legends, equipment reps—are also willing to let the figurative drugs take hold as we engage in pre-game conjecture. 

I arrived at the All England Club at 11 this morning, three hours prior to the gentlemen’s singles final. The period prior to a Slam singles final is quite engaging. Only on finals day are all eyes focused on one match. (With the notable exception of yesterday.) Those of us who’ve been here for a while are both tired and eager. Parallel is the arrival of thousands—fans and usually a good amount of famous folk—who have come to witness a grand conclusion.

The narcotizing aspect is the way we ponder the possibility of compelling scenarios. Just a few heard over the 180-minute pre-match time: Would Novak Djokovic be nervous in taking on the underdog, Kevin Anderson? How fit would Anderson be after playing so much more tennis than Djokovic?

Anderson’s serve was surely a weapon, and perhaps Djokovic was worn out by his two-day epic win over Rafael Nadal. Let’s also not forget how Anderson had held a two-set lead over Djokovic here three years ago. Djokovic, for his part, also hadn’t won a tournament in a long time. And since this was Anderson’s second Grand Slam final, he’d surely be more relaxed. If Anderson could take the first set, that would unquestionably make it tough for Djokovic. Today was going to be Anderson’s day, some said.

On and on it went, all in the interest of something deeply dramatic and memorable happening. Who wants to see anything else?

But rarely discussed was the most plausible scenario, a rather sobering one, the cruel intervention we’d rather not ponder: Djokovic—experienced, fit and graced with a superb service return and excellent set of groundstrokes—had precisely the playing style it took to expose every fiber within Anderson. 

This was exactly what happened through the first two sets. Given all Anderson had been through—21 hours of pre-finals court time compared to 15 for Djokovic—no one could fault him for looking so weary right from the start. There was Djokovic, borrowing Andre Agassi’s trademark approach: Break down the guy’s legs. Of course, Anderson’s epics versus John Isner, Roger Federer (and before that, a long-forgotten three-and-a-half hour tussle against Gael Monfils) had already done a good amount of work on Djokovic’s behalf.  

And yet, even then, the momentum changed.  Steve, what do you think happened in the third set? 

*****

Joel,

As always, I engaged in a lot of pre-match speculation of my own over the 24 or so hours that led up to the final. Having watched Djokovic suddenly fold at the last minute against Marin Cilic in the Queen’s final last month, I wondered if he might be tight in this one. I also wondered, against saner judgement, whether Anderson might simply be a man of destiny this fortnight. 

But it didn’t take long for us to find out how most of this match was going to go, and for all the speculation in the press room to end—one game, to be exact. When Anderson double-faulted to give up a service break in the first game, the air went out of the building. Djokovic did exactly what he needed to do from there. He returned deep and down the middle. He moved Anderson wide along the baseline. He got a high percentage of first serves in (72 percent). He dipped his passing shots perfectly—did he miss any all match? Most important, he didn’t let Anderson hang around on the scoreboard in the first two sets, and gain any confidence. Djokovic, who was four for four on break points, took every opportunity to nail the coffin shut and make the match look hopeless for Anderson. Djokovic is not the guy you want to face if you’re not at your best.

Still, it was inevitable that the match would get closer at some point. Anderson’s body finally seemed to loosen up, and Djokovic finally tightened up, in the third set. What was most impressive was the way Djokovic fought to keep the match from going to a fourth set. He faced five set points at the end of the third, and, from what I have written down, he got five first serves in. Anderson never had a good look.

That was exactly the way Djokovic beat Nadal in the fifth set in the semifinals, and it was exactly the way one of Djokovic’s rivals, Roger Federer, has won so many matches on Centre Court: By coming up with a first serve when he needs it.

Now Djokovic joins Federer and Nadal in the over-30 comeback club. If anything, Djokovic’s re-ascendance is the most sudden and surprising to me. Two months ago, both of us sat in the press room at Roland Garros and saw how disconsolate he was after his loss to Marco Cecchinato. He said he wasn’t sure he would even play on grass this year; today he celebrated by eating another piece of it on Centre Court.

How much does Djokovic’s title run surprise you, Joel? And how do you think it compares to Federer’s and Nadal’s similar comebacks?

***

Steve,

Djokovic was indeed increasingly out of sorts these last two years that it was hard to imagine him winning Wimbledon. A run to the quarters or semis here? Sure. But the performances of Federer and Nadal have been so impressive these last two years that it was hard to clear headspace for Novak as a bonafide contender. 

And yet, how dare any of us not seriously take the chances of a three-time Wimbledon champion? So that said—yes, I was surprised to see him raising the trophy, even though I shouldn’t have been. After all, it was only two years ago that Djokovic arrived at Wimbledon as the holder of all four majors. 

Nadal’s comeback was expected, and certainly at Roland Garros. Given Federer’s age and stage, his return to glory has been the most surprising. 

So in some way, are we back to where tennis was ten years ago? This is where things stood circa 2008: Roger and Rafa the romantic leads, with Novak putting himself right in the thick of it with his own great performances. Djokovic’s skills, his commitment and his fitness have long been exemplary, and certainly proven effective on high stakes occasions versus both Federer and Nadal. The Wimbledon win over Nadal was a gem, a classic testimony to each player’s skill, an amazing rivalry and, in the end, Djokovic’s remarkable resilience.

It’s interesting how contemporary tennis has twisted historic evaluations in all sorts of ways. First, over the last 15 years, surfaces have become far more homogenous, making it seamless for players to make their transitions from Melbourne to Paris to London to New York. No longer are we in the era of surface specialization. So the chance to rack up wins from one Slam to another for the better players is much greater, and far lesser for the occasional one-off or even two-off (tip your hat to Stan Wawrinka).   

Then there’s the fitness factor. Time was when the early 30s seemed the pivotal stage, the time when it became increasingly difficult not merely to contend, but to actually win these major titles. Sure, such masters of longevity as Ken Rosewall, Jimmy Connors and Andre Agassi proved it was possible to have a certain burst of success past 30. But at heart, 30 was the age when a player began to ramp down. Now, though, it seems like 35 is the new 27. 

So recent data shows a persistent, vampire-like series of resurgences. It’s possible for a player to have multiple comebacks across the duration of his career. Look how Federer returned to No. 1 in 2012—and did it again this year. Same for Nadal, who returned to the top ranking in 2010, ’13 and ’17. So why not a major resurgence for Novak, right back to the top?

Steve, now that Novak is in the thick of it again, what are you excited most to see in the men’s game over the coming months?  

*****

Joel,

You must have been reading my mind, because when Djokovic bent down to pick up a piece of the Centre Court grass and put it in his mouth today, I found myself thinking: Is the Big 4 era...starting over? I’d forgotten about his grazing tradition, but it immediately felt like old times.

In the run-up to this fortnight, we saw a slew of anniversary tributes to the 2008 Wimbledon final between Nadal and Federer, including Tennis Channel’s documentary, Strokes of Genius. What doesn’t get mentioned in the story of that match, of course, is that there was a third guy who was already knocking—loudly—on Rafa and Roger’s door. Earlier in 2008, at the Australian Open, Djokovic had won his first major, and while it would take a few more years, he would eventually knock down Fedal’s door and take over the No. 1 ranking.

Fast forward a decade, and a similar dynamic played out at Wimbledon. As this tournament progressed, there was a lot of talk about a reunion final between Nadal and Federer, but it was Djokovic who walked away with the trophy. And while it didn’t have the same atmosphere as the 2008 final, the semifinal between Nadal and Djokovic on Friday and Saturday was probably just as brilliant from a level-of-play perspective. Now the old Trivalry—Federer, Nadal, Djokovic—will lead the way through the summer and into the US Open. The only member of the Big 4 not to have a moment of resurrection so far is Andy Murray, and that could be coming soon.

Desk interview with Wimbledon champion Novak Djokovic:

For all of the talk of the ATP’s Next Gen, there wasn’t much to stop the old guys from dominating for another year, or to stop Djokovic from rising again so quickly. His only tricky test before he faced Nadal was his four-set win over Kyle Edmund in the third round. As for the tour’s other much-touted young guns, Nick Kyrgios’ interest waxed and waned again; Alexander Zverev’s allergy to the majors continued; Dominic Thiem couldn’t back up his Roland Garros run; Borna Coric went out in the first round; Lucas Pouille went out in the second round; the less said about Grigor Dimitrov’s opening-day loss, the better. The biggest breakthroughs on the men’s side came from John Isner and Kevin Anderson, who are 33 and 32, respectively.

Is aging a bad thing? Is it a sign that tennis is withering? Not to my mind. The young guys will take over eventually; in the meantime, why would we want to push the Big 4 off the stage? The traditional alternative in tennis is much worse: Neither Bjorn Borg nor John McEnroe won a Slam after turning 25, and they faced each other just 14 times over four seasons. This weekend we saw the 52nd meeting between Djokovic and Nadal, and it may have the best of them all.

What would I like to see this summer, you ask? I’d like to see Rafa and Novak try to top it.


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.

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