Tennis

Djokovic fulfills dreams, wins title

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Richard Evans

Richard Evans has covered tennis since the 1960s, reporting on more than 150 Grand Slams. He is author of 15 books, including the official history of the Davis Cup and the unofficial history of the modern game in "Open Tennis." Follow him on Twitter.

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LONDON

Stunning. So few athletes will achieve what Novak Djokovic did Sunday on Centre Court because highs do not come higher, achievements do not come greater, dreams cannot be more wholly fulfilled.

Rafael Nadal and Novak Djokovic

IN THE SPOTLIGHT

The best photos from the 2011 Wimbledon men's final between Rafael Nadal and Novak Djokovic.

Djokovic outplayed the defending Wimbledon champion Rafael Nadal — the man he now succeeds as world No. 1 — 6-4, 6-1, 1-6, 6-3. But, it was more than that.

This 24-year-old Serb completed seven months of unsurpassed, unequaled success. Beginning with the triumph of winning the Davis Cup for Serbia in December through the Australian Open and four ATP Masters Series titles and then finishing it all off at Wimbledon, having played 51 matches and winning 50 of them, Djokovic outstripped anything achieved by any other male player in the modern era. That record is Herculean and scarcely believable.

There have been moments in the history of the sport when standards have not been that high. But this is a golden era for men's tennis, when standards are incredibly high.

There is no doubt Nadal and Roger Federer will go down as two of the greatest players who ever lived, and they have been Djokovic's opposition. Only Federer has beaten Djokovic during this run — at the French Open — and, of course, his five-match dominance over Nadal has not only knocked the great Spaniard from his perch but has planted doubts in his psyche from which he may never recover.

If you doubt it, listen to Nadal's rational and sober assessment of his performance.

"Probably the mental part is a little bit dangerous for me," he said. "Because when I arrive to 5-4, I played a bad game from 30-0. When I arrive to 4-3 in the fourth set, I played another bad game with my serve. I didn't play well, these moments. That's what happened in Indian Wells; that's what happened in Miami (where Djokovic won both finals). Don't want to count Madrid and Rome because he played much better than me. But these three times, that's what happened.

"And to change, I have to be a little bit less nervous, play more aggressive and all the time be confident with myself. That's what I'm going to try next time. If not, I'm going to be here explaining the sixth."

WE MEET AGAIN

 
Novak Djokovic and Rafael Nadal

Seeing Rafael Nadal and Novak Djokovic in a final is becoming commonplace. Relive their memorable matches.

 

Nadal was still capable of a smidgen of humor. And, even through the haze of disappointment, he was still able to recognize his opponent's achievement.

"He played better than me. For that reason, he is champion here," Nadal said. "He's doing great. He's doing a few things fantastic."

The man who has done a lot of things fantastic was sufficiently overcome after winning match point to want to eat the grass.

"I felt like an animal," he said, laughing. "I wanted to see how it tastes. It tastes good. It came spontaneously, really. I didn't know what to do for my excitement and joy."

On a more serious note, Djokovic talked about what it all meant to him: "To achieve a lifetime goal (becoming No. 1) and manage to make my dream come true, all in three day's time. This was the best day of my tennis career. For these kinds of days, I was practicing every day, being dedicated, being a tennis professional. I was just chatting with my brothers and my family and my team in the locker room, just kind of remembering those days in Germany (where he trained) and back in Serbia when I was 8, 9, 10 years old, the dreams I had. It's really beautiful. It wasn't an easy way, but I guess that's necessary in order for you to fight for what you want to achieve."

Backing up what I have been suspecting through these past few months, Novak's mother said that winning the Davis Cup final enabled her son to play without fear.

"Well, if my mother says that, then it's like that," he replied with a big smile. "There is nothing else I can say. Mother knows me better than I know myself. After the Davis Cup I was full of life, full of energy, eager to play some more. In a sentence, I lost my fear. I believed in my abilities more than ever. Australia was one of the best tournaments of my life."

2011 US Open

2011 US Open

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That belief carried all the way through these championships when Djokovic did not always play at his best but always found a way to win. In the final, however, he knew what was required of him and he responded. For the first nine games of the match it was toe to toe, but already there had been hints that Nadal was not at the very peak of his game and at 4-5, 30-0 on his own serve, he lost the first foothold.

First, Djokovic drove a magnificent forehand winner down the line. Then, two points later, the champion netted a routine forehand. On break point, Nadal put a forehand wide.

British fans asked themselves why he had not made unforced errors like that against Andy Murray in the semifinal but the answer lay in the past — Murray had not beaten Nadal four consecutive times this year.

Djokovic then proceeded to play some sublime, error-free tennis through the second set before allowing his concentration to slip at the start of the third.

"Obviously when you're playing a player like Nadal, he uses this opportunity to get back into the match," Djokovic said. "In the fourth, it was really important to hold the first service game."

He did that and immediately broke for a 2-0 lead. But Nadal was not finished and rode his luck, breaking back in the next game when a net cord dropped the ball into the Serb's court.

In the eighth game of the fourth set, Djokovic offered a little glimpse of just how he has achieved all this success. Nadal was pounding forehands at him, but Novak was on the end of all of them, no matter how far he had to run. Eventually, after these bullets had been fired across the net a dozen times, the man who was about to lose his crown put a tired forehand into the net.

The screw had turned. That was how Nadal used to win. Now it was Djokovic who always had one more shot in the locker.

As a statement of just how far he has come, nothing says it better than the point at 30-all that took him to championship point at 5-3. For the first time in the match, Djokovic served and volleyed.

"It was now or never," he said. "Just close your eyes, hit the slice, go to the net and hope he will chip one back. I mean, you've got to take your chances. In moments like those, you have to believe you can do it."

He believed. He won. And he's an extraordinary champion.

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