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Steve Flink: Djokovic' s Wimbledon Confirms His Mastery

7/3/2011 4:00:00 PM

WIMBLEDON--- Around these grounds at the All England Club, there had been a growing feeling among those in the cognoscenti that Rafael Nadal was going to overcome Novak Djokovic for the first time this year and secure a third Wimbledon singles title in the process. Nadal, after all, approached this final round contest with a magnificent 10-2 record in major finals. He had not lost a final at a Grand Slam event since falling in five sets against Roger Federer at Wimbledon in 2007, capturing his last seven title round battles since then in “Big Four” tournaments. Nadal had never been beaten by Djokovic in a best of five set encounter, toppling the Serbian three times at Roland Garros, once each at Wimbledon and in Davis Cup, and most recently at the U.S. Open last September. Moreover, Nadal had taken four of the previous five Grand Slam championships. Many people in the know believed Nadal would find a way to stop Djokovic on the fabled Centre Court, where the Spaniard was striving for his third tournament win in a four year span.

But I include myself among those who underestimated Djokovic and his remarkable command of his craft. Djokovic was appearing in his first Wimbledon final, but he comported himself like a man who had been in this uniquely trying situation many times before. It was only his fifth Grand Slam tournament final altogether. He had every reason to be overwhelmed by apprehension, to perform without full conviction, to wonder if he could really summon his finest tennis to win the world’s most prestigious tournament. But Djokovic was self assured, composed, and tactically agile from the outset. The 24-year-old Serbian stepped out onto the Centre Court as if he knew he was going to succeed. He was fearless and largely unshakable, a champion rising to the occasion, a ball striker supreme who ousted the great Nadal for the fifth consecutive time in 2011, carving out a 6-4, 6-1, 1-6, 6-3 victory that was thoroughly deserved and artfully crafted.

Djokovic played a first rate match across the board, and he toppled Nadal on a third different surface during an immaculate 2011 campaign, adding this signature victory to two wins on hard courts and two triumphs on clay that he had collected earlier in the season over the Spaniard. In many ways, the first set was the key to the outcome of this contest. Both men were playing well, backing up their serves with aggressive ground strokes off both sides, covering the court with alacrity, displaying ball control of the highest caliber. Right from the outset, high tension was in the air, and both men were asking difficult questions of each other. Nadal produced two scintillating forehand down the line winners in the opening game of the match, reaching 15-30 on Djokovic’s serve.

Djokovic made a statement right then and there about how he was going to conduct himself under duress. He aced Nadal down the T at 119 MPH, coaxed Nadal into a running forehand mistake with a severely struck two-hander crosscourt, and held at 30 as Nadal miss-hit a forehand after Djokovic came at him with another deep ball. Nadal answered impressively by holding at 15, closing out that game by serving down the T to set up a forehand winner behind Djokovic. It was quickly 1-1, and both players had their bearings and were fully ready for this crucial showdown.

Once more at 1-1, Djokovic was tested on serve as Nadal got to 30-30, but the Spaniard made an aggressive error, driving a forehand long on the run. Djokovic held on at 30 for 2-1, but Nadal retaliated with a love hold of his own, making all four first serves in that game, including an ace for 30-0. Djokovic served a love game to move ahead 3-2 before Nadal held on for 3-3, holding at 30 with a 126 MPH ace down the T. Both players were playing top of the line tennis, not backing off, going for their shots purposefully. Nadal was missing more than usual, but making the right kinds of mistakes, committing errors by taking calculated risks. Djokovic held at 15 for 4-3 with a slice serve wide for an ace, but Nadal reached 4-4 by holding at 30 as Djokovic netted a trademark backhand down the line drop shot.

When Djokovic held at 15 for 5-4 with another slice serve wide in the deuce court for an ace, the set seemed headed for a tie-break. Neither man was giving anything away on serve. Both were confident. Each player was sticking to a sensible game plan and getting the job done well. Serving at 4-5, Nadal released two service winners in a row for 30-0, but that may have given the Spaniard and his boosters a false sense of security. Djokovic caught Nadal off guard with a forehand winner crosscourt, and then released a superb forehand down the line winner off a backhand crosscourt from Nadal. Suddenly, it was 30-30, and Nadal was nervous. He thought he had control of the next rally, but uncharacteristically netted a forehand inside-in. Now he was down set point at 30-40, and Djokovic hit a solid inside-out forehand return to Nadal’s forehand. Inexplicably, Nadal sent a forehand wide down the line, and the set was gone.

That dramatic turnaround in the last game of the opening set carried over into the second. Nadal had Djokovic down 0-30 in the opening game, but let the opportunity pass him by. At 30-30, Nadal approached to the forehand side of his adversary, and Djokovic threw up a high defensive lob. Nadal totally bungled the overhead, and Djokovic soon held on for 1-0. Now the Serbian was soaring while the Spaniard fell into disarray. Djokovic broke for 2-0 at 15, making a dazzling play at break point. Nadal hit a forehand drop shot that Djokovic anticipated well. He scampered in and sliced a backhand pass sharp crosscourt, confounding Nadal with his shot. Nadal spun completely around but could not get to Djokovic’s deceptive shot.

Djokovic charged to 3-0, holding at 15 with another game closing ace out wide to the backhand. Nadal managed to hold on for 1-3, but that was all he would get in the second set. Djokovic swept 12 of the last 15 points to run out that set, building a two set lead in an improbable 74 minutes. Djokovic was playing with such verve and firepower that it seemed entirely possible that he would run out the match unrelentingly in straight sets. But Nadal’s pride and elevated level of play—combined with a lapse from Djokovic—turned the match in a different direction, at least for a while. In nine service games across the first two sets, Djokovic had conceded only ten points.

But Nadal flattened out his backhand and found his range off the forehand in the third set, while Djokovic did not sustain the same high standard of ball striking, particularly off his forehand side. Nadal broke Djokovic at last to move ahead 2-0 in that third set. At 30-40 in that pivotal second game, Djokovic had Nadal on the run, and the Spaniard’s crosscourt forehand landed short. But Djokovic—in one of his few carless moments in the match—netted a backhand approach. Nadal held at love for 3-0 with four straight first serves, three of them un-returnable. Nadal advanced to 4-1 with another love game on serve, and then broke Djokovic for 5-1 when the Serbian’s kick second serve bounded off the net cord and landed wide for a double fault. Nadal closed out the set with a third consecutive love game on serve, pounding in four more first serves and racing through that game commandingly.

Djokovic’s lead was now two sets to one, and Nadal’s outlook had been temporarily altered by his swift passage through the third set. In the opening game of the fourth, Nadal earned a break point, but Djokovic put him quickly on the defensive and attacked. Nadal threw up a high, defensive lob, and Djokovic sent his overhead to Nadal’s forehand. On the run, the Spaniard went for a forehand down the line winner, but his gallant attempt failed. Djokovic had calmly saved himself to regain the ascendancy. He held on for 1-0 and then broke Nadal in the following game. The Spaniard did not miss a first serve, but Djokovic returned solidly and was opportunistic, keeping Nadal off balance, breaking at 15 for 2-0.

Yet Nadal was not spent. He began cracking the backhand harder again in the third game, and then broke back for 1-2 when a forehand chip return dangled on the net cord and fell over. Nadal easily held for 2-2, but Djokovic was in mood to panic. At 2-2, 40-30, he displayed his strategic acumen with an off speed, 115 MPH kick serve to Nadal’s forehand. Nadal flailed at it and sent a forehand return well over the baseline. Nadal held on for 3-3, but that would be his last bright moment. Djokovic served a love game for 4-3, and then Nadal faltered flagrantly in the eighth game. He opened with a double fault, his first and only one in the match. Then he made an abysmal backhand unforced error, followed by a glaring unprovoked mistake off the forehand. Nadal got back to 15-40, but was broken when he committed yet another unforced error, this one off the backhand. Four unforced errors in a game of that importance was evidence that Nadal did not believe in himself or his chances.

Djokovic was not to be stopped now. Serving for the match at 5-3, he moved to 30-15 before Nadal forced him into a running forehand error. At 30-30, Djokovic realized he had to assert himself boldly, and he did just that, serving-and-volleying. His wide serve to the backhand was located right where he wanted it, and Nadal had to chip down the line. Djokovic made a perfect backhand volley winner crosscourt to reach point, and then wrapped up the contest with another excellent first serve down the T that enabled him to go on the attack. He approached to Nadal’s backhand, and the Spaniard was rushed into a passing shot error. Djokovic had triumphed in four sets, and did so with aplomb.

And so Novak Djokovic has become the first Serbian ever to win Wimbledon. He has won his third Grand Slam championship, and his second of the 2011 season. Djokovic has won eight of nine tournaments he has played in 2011, and 48 of 49 matches. On Monday, he moves to No. 1 in the world. No one is going to take him down from that mountaintop for the rest of this year, and perhaps for a long while after that. Djokovic fully understood the consequences of this match. Had he lost, his four previous wins over Nadal would have been totally overshadowed by a defeat at Wimbledon, and critics would have questioned his status as the No. 1 player in the world. Had Djokovic bowed out, Nadal would have secured a second major for the year, and Djokovic—despite his outstanding record—would have looked and felt like someone who did not really belong on top of the planet.

But Djokovic dealt with the pressure admirably. As he said, “I was just trying to enjoy the tennis that I play. Obviously, it was the best tennis on grass courts that I’ve played ever, for sure. It came in the right moment.”

Indeed it did. To be sure, Rafael Nadal did not play his best tennis. His forehand was as unreliable as I have ever seen it. He did not display his usual big point greatness. He pressed at times, grew despondent, could not deliver when it counted. He collapsed at the end of the first set, and fell apart again in the critical stages of the fourth. Yet the fact remains that Novak Djokovic absolutely deserved to win the tournament, and he handled himself in exemplary fashion on an occasion when many expected him to falter. Djokovic is the game’s greatest player, and the feeling grows that his best days are still ahead of him, and of us.

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