How does Djokovic size up against Wimbledon's all-time greats?

His will to win comes from hardships in his childhood in Serbia, he says

By Sumit Chakraberty

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Published: Tue 12 Jul 2022, 10:01 AM

Last updated: Tue 12 Jul 2022, 12:01 PM

In the end, there seemed an inevitability about Novak Djokovic winning his seventh Wimbledon title, beating Nick Kyrgios in the final on Sunday. He made it look easy with his precision and economy of movement. But Kyrgios was a tough opponent, launching first serves at over 130 mph consistently, which is a big advantage on skiddy grass courts. The Australian, notorious for his chuntering on court, looked composed in winning the first set 6-4 with a solitary service break.

Djokovic isn’t one of the greatest of all time in this sport for nothing. Like a chameleon he seems to adapt to the environment and opponent. The Serb began to return Kyrgios’ first serves and that unnerved the Australian. Kyrgios lost a service game in the second set, and the tide turned. By now Djokovic was serving at his best, keeping Kyrgios off balance, and he took the match in four sets. To Kyrgios’ credit, he only lost two service games in the match to Djokovic’s one, with the last set being decided in a tiebreaker. And the Serb was close to being broken a second time, coming from 0-40 down to win the final game of the second set.

This was the third match in a row he came from behind to win, after being two sets down to Jannik Sinner in the quarter-finals, and losing the first set to Cameron Norrie in the semi-finals.

So, on top of the range in his talent to adapt to different conditions and opponents, mental strength is what it took for Djokovic to win his fourth consecutive Wimbledon title, the fourth man to do so in the Open era after Bjorn Borg, Pete Sampras, and Roger Federer. It has been a challenging year for the Serb off-court after being deported from Australia for refusing to be vaccinated against Covid-19 and prevented from defending a Grand Slam title he had won nine times. He lost to Rafael Nadal in the quarter-finals of the French Open, but winning again at Wimbledon to notch up his 21st Grand Slam title, one short of Nadal’s 22, reinforces his credentials as the greatest of all time (GOAT).

He has stamped his authority on grass, winning seven of the last 11 Wimbledon titles, equalling Sampras’ tally and being just one shy of Federer’s eight. He beat Federer in three of his eight finals, and Nadal in one. His only loss in a Wimbledon final was to Britain’s Andy Murray in 2013.

Strangely, for such a great champion, he has never been a crowd favourite at Wimbledon. That Federer and Nadal are loved more may be understandable, but the cheers were louder even for Matteo Berrettini in last year’s Wimbledon final when Djokovic was attempting to become the first man since Rod Laver in 1969 to win a calendar Grand Slam. He fell one match short in the end, losing the US Open final to Daniil Medvedev, perhaps the only occasion when the cheers were louder for the Serb in a major tournament. But he did hold all four Grand Slam titles at the same time in 2016 when he won the French Open after winning the preceding Australian Open, US Open, and Wimbledon.

Photo: AFP
Photo: AFP

Djokovic says his will to win comes from hardships in his childhood in Serbia. While his parents toiled to make ends meet at a mountain resort, he was sent to live with his grandfather in Belgrade. As a 12-year-old, he spent months in the basement of his grandfather’s house, a haven for many during the NATO bombing of Belgrade in 1999.

He became a professional tennis player at the age of 16, and won his first Grand Slam title at the Australian Open in 2008. That ended a stretch of 11 consecutive Grand Slam titles shared by Federer and Nadal between the French Open in 2005 and the US Open in 2007. But Djokovic found his true metier in 2011 after switching to a mostly plant-based diet and setting a new standard in physical fitness. His four-set victory over Nadal in the 2011 Wimbledon final marked the start of a new era dominated by the Serb.

Apart from the numbers, what makes Djokovic’s success sweeter is this rivalry of more than a decade with two all-time greats. Champions in the past have had arch-rivals but never two at the same time for so long. That an injured Nadal missed his Wimbledon semi-final against Kyrgios this year after winning the Australian Open and French Open is a great pity. But it doesn’t take anything away from Djokovic’s mastery on grass in winning his fourth Wimbledon title in a row, which might well have been a fifth consecutive one to catch up with Federer’s eight titles if the 2020 event hadn’t been cancelled after the Covid outbreak.

How does Djokovic measure up against the greatest players to grace the lawns of Wimbledon in the Open era? Let’s begin with Jimbo.

US tennis player Jimmy Connors returns ball during a match of the Roland Garros 1983 French Open tennis tournament in Paris, in May 1983. Photo: AFP
US tennis player Jimmy Connors returns ball during a match of the Roland Garros 1983 French Open tennis tournament in Paris, in May 1983. Photo: AFP

Jimbo’s return of serve

Jimmy Connors aka Jimbo marked the start of the modern era of power tennis when he smashed Ken Rosewall with a steel racquet in a one-sided 1974 final. That was the beginning of the end of wooden racquets and a preference for the double-handed backhand, sacrificing reach for power.

One of Jimbo’s greatest attributes was his return of serve, which meant there were never any easy points for his opponents even on the grass of Wimbledon. Djokovic has the same effect as Kyrgios found out when his booming serves got blunted in this year’s final. To serve at over 130 mph and find a return at your feet even before you’ve regained your balance is disconcerting. Jimbo’s arch rival John McEnroe, who is a commentator these days, puts the Serb on top of a pantheon of great service-returners, with Connors and Andre Agassi in second and third places.

Djokovic would also have the edge over Connors in baseline rallies, with the latter’s forehand being erratic. That may be the reason why Connors lost three out of the five Wimbledon finals in which he appeared, whereas Djokovic has lost just one out of eight.

Sweden's tennis player Bjorn Borg (L) and Argentinian Guillermo Vilas pose before the men's single final, at the French tennis Open of Roland Garros, 11 June 1978. Borg won the match. Photo: AFP
Sweden's tennis player Bjorn Borg (L) and Argentinian Guillermo Vilas pose before the men's single final, at the French tennis Open of Roland Garros, 11 June 1978. Borg won the match. Photo: AFP

Borg’s early exit

Two of Jimbo’s losses in finals were to the Swedish star who won five consecutive Wimbledon titles from 1976 to 1980. Bjorn Borg’s topspin-oriented high percentage game was ideally suited for the clay of the French Open which he won six times. His genius lay in being able to adapt that game to grass and be equally successful. He’s the only man to have won both the French Open and Wimbledon in three consecutive years.

Djokovic too mostly plays topspin from the baseline but he hits flatter for more power which possibly makes him deadlier than Borg on grass. Comparisons between the two will always be inconclusive, however, because Borg never returned to Wimbledon after losing the 1981 final to McEnroe. He dropped out of the game at the age of 26, unwilling to undergo the rigour of the circuit after being knocked off his pedestal. That Djokovic is still going strong at 35, despite being barred from two of the Grand Slam venues now, is a testament to his deep-rooted drive to excel.

John McEnroe of the United States. Photo: AFP
John McEnroe of the United States. Photo: AFP

McEnroe’s serve-and-volley

Indelible in the minds of old-timers who had the privilege of seeing McEnroe’s legendary encounters with Borg in the 1980 and 1981 Wimbledon finals will be the precocious left-hander’s swinging serve followed by an angled volley. Now from the commentary box he still gets excited on the rare occasions when a serve-and-volley is executed these days. It’s a style of play that once suited the skiddy surface of Wimbledon but has all but vanished because of the power that today’s racquets pack.

Passing shots and returns became too hot to handle and the top players of this millennium evolved to a baseline-oriented game even at Wimbledon.

How would Djokovic have fared if he were teleported back in time to the eighties? Probably quite well judging from his high success rate when he uses a serve-and-volley as a surprise. His extreme flexibility, which he showed off while training with gymnasts at the Olympics last year, and quick reflexes, evident in his return of first serves, make him a great volleyer too. Nobody can match the pizzazz of a McEnroe serve-and-volley, however, especially Djokovic whose essence on court is utilitarian. Djokovic would win more often, but McEnroe would be more eye-catching.

McEnroe won three out of his five Wimbledon finals, losing two five-setters to Borg and Connors. Djokovic, on the other hand, won both the finals in which Federer took him to five sets. In fact, the only time he lost a five-setter at Wimbledon was to Mario Ancic of Croatia in the fourth round in 2006 when he was 19 years old. You would have to hand it to Djokovic in any contest of resilience and fitness.

US tennis player Pete Sampras. Photo: AFP
US tennis player Pete Sampras. Photo: AFP

The Sampras serve

Known as Pistol Pete for his rat-a-tat service games, Pete Sampras ruled Wimbledon in the nineties, winning seven titles in eight years between 1993 and 2000. The only time he lost in that period was in 1996 to a tall Dutchman, Richard Krajicek, who out-served him and outhit him in the quarter-finals and went on to win the title.

That was still the serve-and-volley era when the courts were faster and balls lighter. In a slugfest with the tall left-handed Croatian, Goran Ivenisevic, in the 1994 final which Sampras won 7-6, 7-6, 6-0, there were only three rallies that went beyond five shots.

It’s tough to make comparisons between two eras with such contrasting styles of serve-and-volley versus baseline rallies. But Djokovic does have a service reminiscent of Pistol Pete in that he can alter its trajectory with no perceptible change in action. The deception in the service puts opponents off balance time and again. Coaching by Ivanisevic has strengthened that aspect of Djokovic’s game.


Roger Federer’s single-handed backhand

If Sampras relied on his gunshot serves and flat forehand shots, Roger Federer arrived with a near-perfect all-round game for the grass of Wimbledon, combining serves, volleys, and flowing groundstrokes from both flanks. He had a single-handed backhand which was beautiful to watch but would ultimately prove weak against the forehand topspin of the left-handed Nadal and the two-handed backhand of Djokovic.

Federer won five consecutive Wimbledon finals from 2003, after ending Sampras’ run in the fourth round of 2001. Then Nadal and Djokovic challenged him. He still maintained an upper hand over Nadal, winning three of their four encounters, including most recently the 2019 semi-final.

In the final he did not lose a single service game in the first three sets against defending champion Djokovic. And yet he found himself 1-2 down as the Serb won two sets on tiebreakers. The Swiss maestro had two matchpoints in the fifth set, but Djokovic saved those and won the epic match three minutes short of five hours in a 13-12 tiebreaker. Only Nadal can match the Serb in that kind of dogged determination.

Djokovic’s 3-1 record over Federer at Wimbledon is stunning, winning three finals and losing one semi-final.


Rafa Nadal’s topspin

Djokovic has only two French Open titles, losing six times to the undisputed king of clay, Nadal. But the Serb has a 2-1 record over the Spaniard at Wimbledon. That includes Djokovic’s first Wimbledon title in 2011 when he beat defending champion Nadal in four sets.

The left-handed Nadal’s game is oriented around defence and an extreme forehand topspin that’s awkward for right-handers. That’s ideal for slow clay courts, but he adapted to the grass of Wimbledon to the extent that he is now one of the best volleyers in the game. His unique two-handed angular backhand flick across the court also works beautifully on grass.

Overall, Djokovic’s all-round game trumps Nadal on grass where the Serb gets more value for his shot-making and placement than at Roland Garros where the Spaniard can retrieve everything. This year Nadal seemed to have adopted a more aggressive mode, partly to spare his dodgy ankle and partly to end his title drought at Wimbledon since 2010. A tear in his abdomen muscle robbed us of a potential Djokovic-Nadal classic final. Maybe it will happen in 2023 because neither of these two greats is done yet.

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