LONDON – When Novak Djokovic – certainly the first citizen of Serbia now – was but a 12-year old, he was more concerned about the bombing of his hometown than what happened on its few scruffy tennis courts.
“But I had this dream about a place called Wimbledon. And hoped. The [NATO] planes usually bombed at the same times, and we went to cellars then. But it was still scary. I was lucky that my parents got enough money together to send me away, to a tennis academy in Germany.” He was homesick, so returned to Serbia as often as possible.
The rest was determination and doubly hard work through difficult times for the boy from Belgrade, who made the dream make sense. His steaming attacks from the baseline forced the great Rafael Nadal to struggle to stay in points. Usually he didn’t, losing his bid for a third Wimbledon crown, 6-4, 6-1, 1-6, 6-3, in 2:28.
Djokovic was just as swift as the favored title-holding Spaniard, and he was banging line drives all over the famed Centre Court lawn whenever he got to the ball. Forehands and double-barrelled backhands. It was too often for Nadal, Rafa retrieved at times sensationally, but the Serb’s heavy hitting crowded him to play short, open to more flat thunder.
“Yes, I didn’t play long enough. Didn’t make the big, important points,” said a gracious but clearly down Nadal. “No, I’m not happy with my Wimbledon. I lost my title and No. 1.”
He pointed out that Djokovic is hardly a secret. “He’s in my head. He knows it, I know it, you know it. Everybody knows it. Five times he’s beaten me this year [the finals of the Italian Open, Indian Wells, Key Biscayne, Madrid and here]. I’ve got to rest my mind and body, and find a solution.
“I’m used to being the first. But now I’m second, and Djokovic is first. Got to go back to work. Harder.” Nobody works harder than Rafa. But how many athletes would talk openly about a prime rival, who is “in my head”? Very rare.
Nadal didn’t even see a friendly break point until the second game of the third set. That stoked the boisterous 14,979 in the seats, mainly Rafa people. They had hope for a five set climax with Rafa securing his 11th major, and got louder when he won the third set.
As customary, a military band, The Central Band of the Royal British Legion, serenaded the crowd prior to the match. But the music really stopped for Nadal in the opening game of the fourth. He had a break point that might have been a comeback foundation. But Djokovic saved it with a stunning smash of a lofty lob.
Was Djokovic choking a bit in losing the third set? “No, I just let myself relax, but I got back on focus soon enough,” So he did. It was soon over as Nadal’s forehand collapsed in the second game of the fourth.
“Every athlete dreams of being No. 1. When you do it at last, and you know you’re the best, it’s just an amazing achievement. But it was a little bit frustrating. When you get to the final stages of a tournament you run into Nadal and Federer. They were winning everything. They always came up with their best tennis when it matters the most. But it’s a process of learning. Developing and improving as a player and person, just finding the way to mentally overcome those pressures and expectations.
“I always believed I had the quality to beat those guys, win majors [he has three now, two Australians to go with Wimbledon]. After the first Australian Open, the first major in 2008, I was 21 and started getting pressures to do better, expectations that I’d never faced. I would lie to you if I didn’t have doubts. I did have difficult crisis times where I didn’t know if I could make it, you know, because the first two guys were so dominant.”
“My mother told a reporter that Serbia winning the Davis Cup [he won two singles] taught me how to play without fear. She knows me better than myself. I lost my fears. I believed in my abilities more than ever.”
Because of the Balkan wars, Serbia hasn’t been one of the more popular countries. But the tennis success may offer some PR help.
Novak says, “There wasn’t much interest in tennis, but we’re changing that.” Serbia’s president, Bors Tadic, was clapping proudly in the front row. Djokovic could probably have that job if he were interested.
Suddenly quick changes in tennis. Not long ago people were boosting Roger Federer as the greatest player of all time. But he couldn’t beat Nadal. Then Nadal ascended and he can’t beat Djokovic. Who is next? Should be a colossal US Open.
Djokovic even pulled off a serve-and-volley point – seldom seen here these days – to take himself from 30 – all to match point, and startling the downcast Nadal. His 43 match streak has passed, but not too bad is his current record: 50-1 for the year.
Then Novak, who never cared for grass courts, cut through Centre Court like a Japanese beetle. When he had won, he felt he should come down to earth and eat a celebratory snack – a handful of Wimbledon grass. “I felt like an animal. I wanted to see how it tastes. It tastes good, well kept,” said the young man in his salad days.