At the Wimbledon men’s final of 2018, tennis celebrated the return of a wonderful old friend. These last couple of years have featured an unfamiliar doppelganger bearing Djokovic’s name, with none of his old invincibility; but as of the semi-finals here, the awkward stranger is banished.
It’s been a long, uncomfortable road, but the superstar is back, rocking the Centre Court, nibbling its grass in victory, and racking up the Grand Slams once again.
If this Championships decider fell short of an all-time classic, then the story it framed will go down in the history books nonetheless. Here was 32-year-old Kevin Anderson, the giant who no one saw coming, bidding to become the oldest first-time Wimbledon champion since the game turned professional 50 years ago, and the first South African to lift the famous gilt trophy. Opposite him was the 12-time Grand Slam champion Djokovic, who has endured two very long years of turmoil, injury and decline.
Each had fought breathtaking battles through earlier rounds to reach this shootout, but only one man could complete his personal odyssey with the ultimate prize – and it was Djokovic, delivering at times a near error-free display to capture his fourth Wimbledon crown 6-2, 6-2, 7-6(3).
Just months ago – weeks, even – such an idea was inconceivable. Yet having slumped to the world No.21 spot, he has become the lowest-ranked man to win Wimbledon since Goran Ivanisevic did it as the world No.125 in 2001.
Djokovic came into this Fortnight on his humblest-ever seeding here, No.12, carrying the knowledge that this was the first season since 2006 that he has failed to win a Tour-level title before Wimbledon. But if a chap is going to capture his first tournament victory of 2018, he might as well make it the greatest prize of all.
All year Djokovic has shown increasing glimpses of the tennis which formerly made him the best player on the planet; but somehow the results he strung together – a semi-final in Rome, a quarter at Roland-Garros, the final and even a match point at Queen’s – served only to highlight the chasm between that form and the insuperability of old.
Yet he had set himself the towering task of somehow mapping a route back to the player he used to be, and having done so there was no other way to go about it other than step by brutal step.
How easy it is for those of us who have stood witness to announce now that Djokovic’s belief never flagged. That cheap summation surely does him a vast disservice, so evident was his frequent bewilderment at the loss of his former powers.
But still he kept going, and with that marvellous display against a superb Rafael Nadal in the semi-final here, he was reborn – the player he used to be and more, wiser for all that he has endured.
Anderson, for his part, could not rise to the occasion. Having famously beaten Roger Federer 13-11 in the final set of an epic quarter-final, he backed it up with that magnificent mega-duel to defeat John Isner, but the final was a test too far.
Ten years after he last defeated Djokovic, he was hobbled both mentally and physically by the incalculable demands of so many hours on court. It was only in the third set that he began to play as he would have wished.
Even in the first set his service arm was suffering with the cumulative effect of so many power deliveries in so short a timespan, and he received attention from the trainer. At a set and 2-5 down he at last commanded a break point, but under relentless fire from Djokovic the forehand which has served Anderson so well could not deliver.
Throughout it all, the South African chattered away to himself in encouragement, deploying all the newly-learned mental tricks which have helped him to two Grand Slam finals in the last year. He will leap up to No.5 when the latest rankings are released after The Championships, and his achievements at Wimbledon 2018 will not be forgotten
But as the Centre Court surface temperature touched 40 degrees, Djokovic was hot stuff on a hotter day. With the heavy cloak of doubt cast aside, unburdened at last, Djokovic ensured that the legendary lawn was left scorched by more than just the summer sun.
For two sets his serve delivered time after time, and Anderson could scarcely touch it. Only when the prize drew near did Djokovic misfire, and he repelled five set points. Up ahead, triumph waited patiently.
The Serb took a step towards it with a delicious forehand pass; and soon after that, victory’s kiss left him on his haunches, as if in prayer. Minutes later, the ancient trophy was in his hands again, a sight applauded by his three-year old son Stefan in the arms of his mother, Djokovic’s wife Jelena.
“It feels amazing – the first time in my life I have someone screaming ‘Daddy! Daddy!’,” smiled Djokovic. “I’m very emotional with him being there, and my wife and whole team. I cherish this moment.
I would like to congratulate Kevin. I was quite lucky to get through. I’m very grateful to everyone who has been supporting me. The last couple of years haven’t been easy, facing for the first time a severe injury. I had many moments of doubt and didn’t know if I could come back. But there’s no better place in the world to make a comeback. I always dreamed of holding this trophy as a boy. This is a sacred place for tennis. It’s very special.”
And then he laughed, gazing in wonder at the trophy – and so much else – restored to him once more. Novak Djokovic is the champion again, at Wimbledon, the place which matters to him the most. Welcome back, friend. Seems like old times.”
By Kate Battersby
Picture credit : Aeltc / Jed Leicester