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Saturday, May 18, 2024

Djokovic Unwinds and Secures Spot in Yet Another Wimbledon Final

A year after being deported from Australia, Novak Djokovic won the Australian Open and, in a moment of strained happiness, sank into the arms of his family and coaches. This was six months ago.

In the quest for the most Grand Slam singles championships, he was now tied with Rafael Nadal. Falling flat on his back on the red clay of Roland Garros when he eventually gained the lead last month at the French Open, he compared winning that tournament, his 23rd Grand Slam trophy, to climbing Mount Everest. He and his wife packed their hiking gear and flew to the Azores for a holiday. His warm-up jacket had the number 23.

Being around Djokovic these last two weeks is like being in the company of someone who, at least when he is not operating inside the limitations of the grass tennis court, is practically unrecognisable from his prior persona. The aggressive fighter who used to drag around career-related stress is no more. His usual expression—which looked more like an inquiring scowl—has been replaced with a smile of contentment.

He no longer walks through So Miguel or the All England Club staring at the ground as he passes people on the way to the practise courts or the locker room. Upon seeing you, he halts to strike up a conversation. He signs an autograph and takes a selfie. Even when the moderator of one of his press conferences cuts him off, he refuses to go without answering a few more questions. After work, he drives to the nearby rental house he and his family live in so they can have supper together.

Match and practically all of Djokovic’s recent Grand Slam matches can be summed up in the last point: a passionate rally in which Djokovic is well dialled in, culminating in another opponent’s aspirations being destroyed with a decisive backhand into the net.

He has, at least temporarily, refrained from further involving himself into political disputes over public health and personal freedom, or the 700-year-old territorial war between Serbia and Kosovo.

Sure, the crowd cheers for his opponents, particularly in the first set when the beatings start and maybe some charitable applause or any type of support may stretch the match a little and offer a little more value to the Centre Court ticket that could have cost a week’s income. Djokovic understands. Don’t interrupt him when he’s serving or in the midst of a point, however.

Djokovic has to win only eight more matches to become the first male player since Rod Laver in 1969 to capture all four Grand Slam singles championships in the same calendar year.

Can a match that is supposed to last five games be decided in the second? It is when Djokovic is on the court. It took Djokovic that long to break Sinner’s serve. In the fifth game, down 3-1, Sinner had a chance to delay the inevitable ending by breaking Djokovic’s serve, but he missed the ball completely with a forehand that was just beyond of reach.

Djokovic has only dropped the opening set five times in his almost 20-year career at a Grand Slam competition, and the first two sets once. And that was all before he became the virtually unbeatable Djokovic we know today.

He went behind the baseline to calm himself, knowing that a younger, more impulsive Djokovic might have exploded. Then, after several powerful serves and sharp returns, the match was finished.

Another frustrating moment occurred in the third set when Sinner upped his game, began smashing the ball over the court, and eventually gained two set chances on Djokovic’s serve at 4-5, 15-40.

None of it was to Djokovic’s liking. After winning the following point and the game, he looked down at the hecklers and raised a mocking thumb in the air while shaking his head. There has to be a deciding factor at some point. In the third set tiebreaker against Sinner, Djokovic came back from a 3-1 hole to win six of the next seven games by slipping into backhands and forcing Sinner to smash one more shot after another.

It’s official: Roger Federer is hanging up his racket. After having hip and stomach surgery, Nadal is out indefinitely. Djokovic’s childhood buddy and competitor in junior tennis, Andy Murray, now has a metal hip and can’t make it through the first week of Grand Slams.

Dan O'Brien
Dan O'Brien
I am a journalist for The National Era with an emphasis in sports.
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