It’s Novak Djokovic’s Wimbledon. Don’t roll your eyes.
At first glance, this year’s Wimbledon, back after the coronavirus pandemic shut down the world’s most famous tennis tournament in 2020, appears to be a diminished affair.
No Rafael Nadal. After a deadly defeat against Novak Djokovic in the semi-final of Roland Garros, Nadal withdrew from Wimbledon, citing a need to heal.
No Naomi Osaka. She announced last week that she would continue her hiatus to take care of her mental health.
Roger Federer will set foot on center court again, but he’s almost 40 and still shakes rust from an injured knee. Over time, the chances of Serena Williams making another winning round also increase.
But Djokovic will be there, fresh from the victory at Roland Garros and aiming to kill the record books. Winning Wimbledon, which starts next Monday, would give him his 20th major title, finally tying him to Federer and Nadal. It would also keep alive his quest to win four majors in a single year, the Grand Slam, something that hadn’t been achieved for the men in 52 years.
He is now sitting on the precipice of history, which creates a bond for his many stubborn detractors: ignore and deride his moving walk, or finally give the fiery and efficient Serbian what he is due.
Here’s why enemies, and those who just aren’t moved by his rise, should reconsider Djokovic.
Its minimalist approach redefines the mastery of tennis.
In a sport that exudes aesthetics, that lives off the impressive flow of points and ballet movement of its most remarkable practitioners, Djokovic’s clean approach is as divisive as Rothko’s color blocks.
Federer has Rembrandt’s flair: all those baroque swings and gracefully artistic approaches. Nadal’s physical and looping groundstrokes are reminiscent of the left hooks of a heavyweight boxer.
But Djokovic’s game has its beauty. No top player has ever been so flexible, so capable, on all surfaces, to twist and bend and turn a defensive sprint into a sudden attack. More than perhaps anyone in tennis history, Djokovic has honed the fundamental core of the game – preparation, balance, weight transfers, footwork.
It’s minimalist, stripped down and free from the need for flashy flair. Is there an eye-catching aesthetic to this? You bet.
It is not a robot. It’s Houdini.
There are too many Djokovic slashes on the Internet to count. They say it’s a machine. A robot. Nothing more than the largest squash wall in the world.
Yes, he wins… and wins, and wins. In the past decade, no one has done so much in tennis. But there is nothing predictable about the way Djokovic goes about it. There are all-round hard-hitting blows – blurs of brilliance that blend power, defense and skill – like in his straight-set demolition of Nadal in the 2019 Australian Open final.
There are also dazzling displays of courage, grit, and endurance. His recent title at Roland Garros was all about that. But also don’t forget the six-hour, five-set marathon against Nadal to win the Australian Open in 2012. And, of course, the return of two match points to smother Federer in the epic Wimbledon final. in 2019.
Remember 2010 and 2011, when Djokovic rose from his ashes twice to beat Federer in the semi-finals at the US Open, fend off two match points in both cases. In 2011, Djokovic not only came back from two sets, he saved the first match point he faced with a forehand return from the heels that passed his rival and stuck the line for a clean winner.
Federer quickly withered, losing every remaining game, sagging as if disgusted by his opponent’s daring.
If you think a deep penchant for Houdini-style escapes is boring, well, you might be more than convincing.
Djokovic’s flaws redeem him.
Yes, he can burst, shatter racquets, bark like an irritable child at himself, his coaches, referees and peers. At his wayward nadir, the 2020 US Open, he hit a ball of anger that hit a linesman, which led to his tournament default.
At his most reckless, he attempted to host tournaments last year in Serbia and Croatia during one of the worst times of the pandemic. The exhibits were canceled after he and other high profile players fell with the coronavirus.
Djokovic has proven to be too human in the best, worst, and most profound ways. He’s not shy about it. Despite the myriad of clips of him rages on the court or appearing deaf – like in April when he said he didn’t think coronavirus vaccinations should be mandatory on the ATP circuit – his trip has always been public.
His flaws and the openness with which he reveals his inner life make him more interesting than his almost perfect and more restrained peers.
Without it, tennis would be a monotonous duopoly.
For years, men’s tennis seemed to be defined by a single rivalry: Federer versus Nadal. Two great champions, two contrasting styles.
Their enduring connection has come to define this era of sport. Then Djokovic broke in and pushed his way. He’s the third wheel, different from Federer and Nadal in almost every way, including the fact that he’s not from affluent Switzerland or Spain, but from a country in Europe fans can’t find on a map.
To his enemies, this is all a bitter pill to swallow, one that they must choke on frequently.
Djokovic now holds the upper hand in head-to-head wins against the two rivals. Since 2011, he has won 18 major titles, seven more than Nadal and 14 more than Federer during that time.
After winning this year’s Australian Open, a newspaper title summed up the uncomfortable truth of tennis: Djokovic could be the greatest of all.
If a rested Federer can stir up old turf magic, maybe we’ll get the title fight everyone wants: a rematch of the thrilling All England Club 2019 final.
Novak Djokovic will find himself in a familiar place, facing a noisy crowd who are as concerned about Federer’s victory as they are about seeing the Serbian crumble in defeat.
If recent history holds, Djokovic will once again lift the champion’s trophy, another gripe against holdouts who refuse to embrace one of the most exciting champions in any sport.
Wimbledon diminished? Not enough.