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Column Copyright 2018 by Paul Fein

No Joke — The Djoker Is Back!

Tennis is boxing without the blood.” – Fiercely competitive Jim Courier, four-time Grand Slam winner

Wimbledon gets the best out of you. It makes you focus. It makes you play better.” – Novak Djokovic

 Late in the fourth set of his riveting semifinal against archrival Rafael Nadal, Novak Djokovic flashed the intensity that had energized him to 12 major titles. After he netted a passing shot on break point to fall behind 5-3, he whacked his foot with his racket four times in anger. His masochism didn’t draw blood, though it has in the past. “This feels like the men’s championship match,” said Mary Carillo, the Tennis Channel analyst. Indeed, it did.

Exhilarated fans had booed when the referee suspended their match after three sets on Friday because of the Wimbledon village 11 p.m. curfew. When play resumed on Saturday at 1 p.m. with the roof still closed despite the perfect weather, the fans got what they came to see and even more. Nadal, called “probably the greatest fighter ever to play the game” by Djokovic, was fighting to even the 52nd match in their rivalry at two sets apiece. Nadal was quickly down love-40, triple break point. As he so often does, Nadal escaped. He won five straight points, the last two on a reflexed volley winner and an ace landing smack on the service line. That evened the score at 6-4, 3-6, 7-6, 3-6.

The fifth set figured to be a toss-up. Grass court results gave the 31-year-old Serb the edge. Djokovic led 26-25 in the longest Open Era men’s rivalry and won three of his 12 Grand Slam titles at Wimbledon, in 2011, 2014, and 2015. Nadal had captured the last of his two Wimbledon crowns way back in 2010; but, often exhausted from winning the French Open, he had won just eight Wimbledon matches in the past six years. On the other hand, results during the past 18 months gave the 32-year-old Spaniard the edge. He had grabbed three of the last six majors and reached another final. Djokovic endured a two-year slump, and his last major final, which he lost to Stan Wawrinka, came at the 2016 US Open.

The best match of the year was decided by the best set of the year. At 7-all, Djokovic dramatically staved off three break points with an ace, forehand passing shot, and a forehand winner that barely clipped the sideline. Just when you thought it couldn’t get any better, it did. Down match point at 7-8, 30-40, Nadal conjured a wicked backhand drop shot. Djokovic couldn’t handle the gutsy surprise shot. Nadal then belted an ace to level the score at 8-all. “Both players continue to play at a stratospheric level,” raved ESPN analyst John McEnroe.

Eventually, Djokovic’s more solid shots, especially his service return and backhand, overwhelmed the more versatile and tactical Nadal. Djokovic took eight of the last nine points and broke Nadal at love to prevail 6-4, 3-6, 7-6, 3-6, 10-8. In a classic lasting five hours and 15 minutes, both Nadal and Djokovic wound up with 73 winners and 42 unforced errors—remarkable stats because they are identical and because the differential of 31 showed the extraordinary quality of their shots.

“I was very emotional after the match,” Djokovic said in a BBC interview. “It has been a long 18 months for me, trying to overcome different obstacles. There were times of doubt, frustration, disappointment, where you are questioning whether you want to keep going. So, to be where I am now is quite, quite satisfying.”

Three other memorable matches also overshadowed the gentlemen’s final. Many fans hoped for a reunion of tennis titans Nadal and Roger Federer on the tenth anniversary of their epic Wimbledon final, widely considered the GOAT match. Instead, Kevin Anderson, the 2017 US Open finalist, ambushed Federer in a marathon quarterfinal. As every former superstar knows, they were sometimes plagued by inconsistency and nerves in the twilight of their careers. But this seemingly isn’t the twilight of the still-mighty Fed’s career, even at nearly 37. The defending champion at Wimbledon, he’s also captured the last two Australian Opens. Federer echoed the sentiments of many when he said afterwards, “I didn’t see it coming. From that standpoint, I felt great in practice, good in the warmup.”

After taking the first two sets 6-2, 7-6, Federer held a match point with the 6'8" Anderson serving at 4-5 in the third set. The Swiss maestro boasted a 12-1 career record against players standing 6'6" or taller on grass. And after Federer had won the first two sets, only four players in his 20-year career had ever come back to beat him. But sometimes when the pressure peaks, you can throw out the stats. This time Anderson belted a 132-mph serve to Federer’s vulnerable backhand and attacked the short return with a deep approach to Federer’s backhand. Federer wildly shanked the passing shot. After losing his only match point, Federer lost his momentum and ultimately the match 2-6, 6-7, 7-5, 6-4, 13-11.

The eight-seeded Anderson, known for too often losing close matches, stuck to his guns, chiefly a booming serve that hammered 28 aces among his 65 winners, to pull off the thrilling 4-hour, 14-minute upset. “I just kept on telling myself I have to keep believing and I kept saying that today was going to be my day, because you really need that mindset taking the court against somebody like Roger,” explained Anderson. “If you go out there with doubts, or unsure what’s going to happen, like I maybe did a little bit in that first set, it’s not going to go your way. I just gave it my all and am very ecstatic to get through that.” Anderson would have to summon even greater mental and physical strength just two days later in the semifinals against even taller, 6'10" John Isner, whose main claim to fame was winning the longest match—both for time length and total games—in tennis history. Eight years ago, he needed three days and a marathon 70-68 deciding set to finish off Nicolas Mahut at Wimbledon. Known for his 140-mph service aces that produce awe but also yawns from fans who crave rallies, Isner frequently winds up playing tiebreakers. That’s exactly what happened in the first three sets with Isner seizing two TBs. Gradually though, the faster and more agile Anderson turned the tide to win the fourth set.

Like the Australian and French Opens, Wimbledon does not play a tiebreaker in the fifth set. They say records are made to be broken, and as the fifth set score mounted and mounted and mounted, the still-excited, but urologically- challenged spectators—and poor chair umpire—wondered if the unforgettable 70-68 set record would go down along with them. One disgruntled spectator yelled, “Come on guys! We want to see Rafa!” At 24-all, the less fit Isner, who often lost the marathon matches his game created, was visibly tiring. A painful foot blister compromised his movement and slowed his serve. During a rally at 15-love, Anderson slipped and dropped his racket but somehow grabbed the racket and got up and then improvised with a surprisingly solid left-handed forehand. He wound up winning the point when the rattled Isner missed a forehand. The stunned crowd roared. That catalyst deflated the exhausted Isner. And the fresher Anderson reeled off six of the remaining eight points for an eyebrow-raising 7-6, 6-7, 7-6, 6-4, 26-24 triumph, the longest semifinal in Wimbledon history.

On his razor-close victory, an empathetic Anderson said, “You feel like it should have been a draw.” Most observers, though, believed this seemingly endless, 6-hour, 36-minute battle of endurance should never have happened.

McEnroe Advocates Rule Change

“I said eight years ago when John Isner and Nicolas Mahut went 70-68 in the fifth set that you have to change the rule,” said McEnroe. “You have to get a tiebreaker [for the deciding set]. Here is another perfect example. These two warriors went at it tooth and nail. There was a lot of mesmerizing stuff. But for the sake of the fans, those two players, all the people watching [on TV], and the sake of the finals, you have to make a rule change.” The US Open is the only Grand Slam event with a tiebreaker used at 6-all in the fifth set.

The fourth marathon duel pitted Nadal against another towering opponent, 6'6" Juan Martin del Potro, and lasted 4 hours, 47 minutes, the longest of the tournament up to the quarterfinals. Nadal ran the much-slower and less agile Argentine around cruelly, while fifth-seeded Del Potro countered with 33 aces and 28 forehand winners any time he could get set up in time. In the end, Nadal’s greater versatility and stamina made the difference. On match point of the entertaining, come-from-behind 7-5, 6-7, 4-6, 6-4, 6-4 victory, the clever Nadal surprised Del Potro by serving and volleying. Delpo slipped and fell chasing Nadal’s backhand volley winner and lay face down as the umpire intoned “Game, set, match.” Much like Anderson, Nadal praised his valiant, vanquished foe. “He’s an amazing player, an amazing opponent,” Nadal said. “In some ways he deserves to win this match, too.”

After all these engrossing, bruising battles, the gentlemen’s final turned out to be anti-climactic, except for the final set. Despite being a heavy underdog, Anderson confidently proclaimed, “I know I have the game to beat him.” He could find encouragement from reaching the 2017 US Open final, though Nadal trounced him 6-3, 6-3, 6-4, and leading Djokovic two sets to love in the 2015 Wimbledon fourth round before losing 7-5 in the fifth set.

But 21 hours on the court had debilitated Anderson, especially his wars of attrition against Federer and Isner. The 87-degree heat only made his challenge more daunting. Still, whatever would happen in the final, after he stooped to get through the doors of The All England Club before walking on Centre Court, Anderson had much to be proud of. “He was a total pusher with only a big serve in college [University of Illinois],” recalled ESPN analyst Brad Gilbert. “He’s totally transformed his game.” The late-blooming, 32-year-old South African did it with determination and professionalism, culminating with the hiring of highly respected Brad Stine as coach last December.

For Djokovic, this final marked the last step in a remarkable career comeback that accelerated this season but sputtered at the French Open. After his shocking 6-3, 7-6, 1-6, 7-6 quarterfinal loss to No. 72-ranked Marco Cecchinato, he sounded utterly demoralized. Asked when he planned to play his first grass-court tournament, Djokovic replied, “I don’t know if I am going to play on the grass.” But with longtime friend and confidante Marian Vajda back as coach and Gebhard Gritsch back as fitness trainer, the resilient Serb returned in quest of his fourth Wimbledon and 13th major title.

Anderson got off to the worst possible start. An unforced forehand error and a double-fault cost him the opening game, and Djokovic easily broke his serve again to lead 4-1 and take the first set, 6-2. “It’s a wicked combination of stress, nerves, and fatigue,” pointed out McEnroe. With British Prime Minister Theresa May, the Duke and Duchess of Cambridge, and tennis greats Bjorn Borg, Rod Laver, and Billie Jean King watching from the Royal Box, the second set identically repeated the first set with quick service breaks in the first and fifth games and a 6-2 result.

Just when it looked like this final might come close to the most lopsided Wimbledon final, McEnroe’s 6-1, 6-2, 6-2 thumping of Jimmy Connors in 1984, Anderson gamely rebounded to hold his serve routinely for six straight games. Even better, he earned break points chances in each of Djokovic’s last three service games. But a fired-up Djokovic staved off all six break points—just as he had for all five break points against Nadal in the fifth set of their semifinal.

The crowd was itching for a fourth set, but Djokovic predictably squelched that by romping to a 7-3 tiebreaker and a 6-2, 6-2, 7-6 triumph. He raised his arms in a relatively tame victory celebration. Spectators appreciatively cheered his workmanlike performance, but The Djoker’s joy came more from seeing his three-year-old son Stefan clapping in the arms of his wife Jelena. “It feels amazing—the first time in my life I have someone screaming ‘Daddy! Daddy!’” said Djokovic. “I’m very emotional with him being there, and my wife and whole team. I cherish this moment.”

If tennis fans don’t respond to Djokovic with the ecstasy they shower on the beloved Federer, or even the admired Nadal, it can partly be attributed to the 31-year-old Serb’s playing style, according to former No. 1 Jim Courier. “Djokovic doesn’t have to bludgeon opponents with offense because his game is so balanced and his defense is so good,” Courier explained on Tennis Channel. “I describe Novak’s game as effortless brutality. It doesn’t look like he’s doing a ton of damage. But the accumulation of pressure from his consistent, relentless depth, his balanced attack, and his movement just take the legs of opponents, and it causes their death by a thousand cuts. But he doesn’t have that trademark shot, like Nadal’s forehand, that everyone goes ‘Wow!’ over—except when he slides and turns defense into offense. So Novak has had a hard time gaining the love and admiration of the crowd in an era when Federer and Nadal have soaked up so much of the love of the fans.”

With Djokovic now at 13 major titles, he closed the gap a bit behind Federer’s record 20 and Nadal’s 17 (and an Olympic gold medal), with the US Open coming up on hard courts, Djokovic’s best surface. Time is on his side in the GOAT competition. He’s a year younger than Nadal and nearly five years younger than Federer.

After two years in the tennis wilderness, Djokovic has recreated The Big 3. And it couldn’t have happened at a better time and place. As Djokovic said, “There is no better place in the world to really be making a comeback. This is a sacred place for the world of tennis.”


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