TENNIS

Novak Djokovic makes spectacular return to Wimbledon

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WIMBLEDON, England — She staged unreasonable beauty in late June and early July, and it can feel like she’s keeping it all hidden within her walls and stalls. Center court, still incredibly sleek at 100, saw Martina Navratilova fly, Pete Sampras hold serve and Roger Federer redefine geometry. She saw the will of Billie Jean King, the technique of Rod Laver, the grace of Bjorn Borg, the fear of two Williams.

On Tuesday at Wimbledon, she saw something alongside it all: the towering will and absurd level that Novak Djokovic found for himself, all wrapped up in a five-set match that Djokovic followed with two sets against one. explosion of a phenomenon.

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Thus, an unequaled place saw a more unmistakable greatness. What delicacy.

If Djokovic’s 5-7, 2-6, 6-3, 6-2, 6-2 win over 20-year-old Italian Jannik Sinner doesn’t prove memorable for Center Court clients who have it seen and tried to urge Sinner, it may be because they skipped the extra cap or two, a sound Center Court has embraced in recent years. If the passing shot Djokovic landed at the end of the fifth set doesn’t stick out in memory due to Pimm excess or whatever, well, there’s always YouTube, where he belongs in perpetuity.

To the rational, it might remain baffling how anyone could find out what Djokovic looked like on center court mid-afternoon. Djokovic described what everyone saw: “I started to doubt my shots. He began to believe more in himself. He just had a better, I guess, mentality on the pitch. I did not stay in the rallies. He had confidence to step in and dictate the game. I was not staying on track. I was absent, I was too passive, and it happens. You know, at this level, especially on grass, everything happens very quickly.

What followed was the work of the great, even if it required a trip to the bathroom and a look in the mirror and a conversation with the face in it. The 17 years Djokovic spent in five-set Grand Slam matches all seemed visible in how the 35-year-old suddenly located a rare enough level of tennis that he was perhaps the rarest.

He played 43 matches in five sets in the four most coveted events. He has won 34. He has won 16 of his last 18 games. He won against Federer in the 2019 final here when Djokovic’s unforced errors in all three tiebreakers he won ended in a zero. He has won them since 2005 – Wimbledon, second round, Guillermo Garcia-Lopez – and he has won them seven times in straight sets: against Garcia-Lopez then, Federer at the 2011 US Open, Andreas Seppi at the 2012 Roland-Garros, Kevin Anderson at Wimbledon 2015, Lorenzo Musetti and Stefanos Tsitsipas at Roland-Garros 2021 and Sinner on Tuesday. His opponent had gone 2-2 in four heading into Tuesday, not bad for a pup.

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Yet it was when Djokovic took the level to the clouds – three unforced errors in the third set, eight in the fourth, three in the fifth – that both players began to notice the U-turn. For this, they would come back to the same match without consulting each other: the fourth game of the third set, when Djokovic broke tied for 3-1. Sinner would lament his “easy forehand into the net” that made things like-30 and helped build the snowball. Djokovic told both the crowd in the post-match interview and reporters in the interview room that he felt “confidence” there while noticing a hint of “doubt” in Sinner.

He could feel things on the other side of the pitch – and not just when he climbed onto the net in the fourth set to help Sinner after the lad sprained his ankle and toppled over in brief agony. Amidst multiple praises for Sinner as “fantastic”, “very mentally present”, “dedicated” and “professional”, Djokovic said: “I feel like Sinner, you know, coming into the game had no not much to lose, but he had a lot to lose when he was two sets to love. I could feel it mentally with him.

It’s the level of otherworldly feel of someone who played those smashes for 17 years and said, “You approach those particular situations when you’re two together a little more calmly, a little more confident, with more of self-confidence, if that could be a definition. He said: “These things play a role. How big a role is really depends on the two players. And he said: “From the start of the third, I played three sets of really solid, really high quality tennis. From the start of the third when I broke his serve early, I felt I was finding my rhythm and my tempo on the hits.

He said, “I kind of played a new game, to be honest,” although Sinner said honestly, “The fifth set, I think I played the right way.”

That fifth set saw Sinner hit a groaning dropshot that floated like a dying mosquito into the net at the tired end of a 12-shot rally. The point gave Djokovic a valuable break of serve for 2-1. Then, as Sinner served at 2-4 with the afternoon turning bluer but the stage lights about to fade, the point at 30-30 brought the point of searing mastery.

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Three strokes into the rally, Sinner pushed Djokovic into the backhand corner and took his lanky self and powerful shots towards the net. Djokovic went over there to drag the thing and flared into a near-spread, swooped in and redirected the ball across the field and past Sinner. The crowd marveled regardless of anything else, and Djokovic stayed on his chest doing an airplane shape or, as one wag put it, “more seaplane.”

Then he got up and did his ironic old ritual of begging for applause.

It was a one-point gasp for a player gasp, so it’s no wonder that on the next one, on the verge of breaking, Sinner went to a keeper and kicked him badly for so long that it looked nightmarish. It looked like he knew he should do something perfect.

Then Djokovic won again, an 84th singles victory at Wimbledon since the start of 2005, and he spoke to the crowd about the ‘peer talk in the mirror’, then said of it: “It’s actually true. Everyone laughed, and he talked about having to “recover and, I guess, gather thoughts and come together,” and he said, “The fight within is always the biggest fight you have to fight on the court. »

The same goes for life, of course, but here he had won another inner battle, and that had been something else – and, somehow, center court had seen it too. .

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