(2) Djokovic d. (1) Nadal, 6/4 6/1 1/6 6/3
The sport’s most prestigious title hung in the balance. Rafael Nadal’s inevitable and ferocious counterattack had delivered him the third set 6/1, and the looming questions became if and when Novak Djokovic would succumb to doubt, and fade away. Nadal moved to an early break point in the fourth, and the answers looked to be ‘yes’ and ‘now’. But Djokovic served his way out of that, they traded breaks, and the Serb never again looked troubled. Ultimately, the answers would prove to be ‘no’, and ‘never’, as they have all year. His, I’ve suggested previously, is a mind free from doubt. He is the world No.1, and he is the Wimbledon champion, accolades that have achieved synonymy in the last decade. Surely he has transcended our doubts as well.
Nadal was afterwards candid, and charmingly expansive, in dissecting the match, and its context within his recent troubles with Djokovic. He rightly compared it to his defeats in the American Spring, in Indian Wells and Miami, and suggested that like those encounters it hinged on Djokovic’s unfettered courage at the key moments, and that he (Nadal) had been handcuffed by nerves. (Madrid and Rome, he again correctly insisted, were slightly less relevant since Djokovic had simply been so much better.) It was a frank assessment, and tellingly revealed the delicacy of Nadal’s approach to these matters. Sadly, subtleties such as these are the first things ironed out by time. History will merely show that Djokovic overcame Nadal in five consecutive finals in 2011, across three different surfaces. What history says about it will depend on where they go from here.
Nadal may well cope better than expected. The standard word on the Spaniard – amply reiterated – is that he prefers the role of hunter over the hunted. It’s a pretty trite word, but there’s doubtless something in it. He does play freer when he is in hot pursuit of some goal or other, be it the top ranking, or the career Grand Slam. And let’s not forget that he holds the record for longest consecutive streak at No.2 (160 weeks). But that was to Roger Federer, and one suspects that playing second fiddle – if not viola – to Djokovic will prove rather more trying. There were moments in Madrid and Rome when Nadal looked quite disgusted to be on the bad end of the handshake, and for all that the ATP and Ion Tiriac may wish it otherwise, losing your Wimbledon title and the No.1 ranking probably hurts more.
Gaining them must feel commensurately swell, and certainly Djokovic looked thrilled. Actually, it took him a while to get to thrilled, since first he had to run through that theatrical stunned-mullet routine he unveiled in New York last year, and which this time included actually tasting the court surface, just so everyone could see how special the whole affair was. We could already tell for ourselves, since the people in his player’s box switched their standard-issue white tracksuits for white t-shirts with Serbian flags on them. Word is there were wild celebrations in Belgrade. Djokovic was, as ever, gracious and proud in his acceptance speech. He really seems like a hell of a nice guy, relaxed and accessible.
He now has an enormous target embroidered onto his back, so it’ll be interesting to see just how relaxed he remains once that itch settles in between his shoulder blades. I have always suspected that getting to No.1 meant more to Djokovic than it has for any player since Pete Sampras, even including Federer and Nadal, and that the years of playing third fiddle – okay, viola – were a bit of a downer. Now that he’s achieved the top spot, and claimed the tournament he is suddenly declaring means the most, I’m curious to see how it pans out. Still, he doesn’t have a ton of meaningful stuff to defend between now and the end of the year – mostly just a US Open final – so it is hard to see how he might be replaced before January 2012, especially given his outstanding abilities on the US hardcourts.
But these are concerns for other days. For now, we have a Wimbledon champion and a world No.1 who isn’t Nadal or Federer, for the first time since 2002 and 2004 respectively. It has been long wait for the heir-apparent, so long that even as his streak grew to ludicrous proportions this year, as titles mounted up, there must have been a lurking anxiety that it may never come, even as it seemed inevitable to everyone else. Well, the day has arrived, and judging from the smile, it’s good to be the king.