LONDON — Ten months ago, Novak Djokovic stood devastated on the court at Arthur Ashe Stadium as his attempt at the elusive Calendar Slam was foiled in the US Open final.
Ten turbulent months.
In between there was a global controversy ending in deportation from Australia due to his unvaccinated status, as well as Rafael Nadal‘s Australian Open victory to break the record for major titles. Not to mention Djokovic’s fall from No. 1 and his crushing loss in the quarterfinals at the French Open to Nadal.
But now Djokovic, 35, is finally back on top of the tennis world.
On Sunday, he returned to major glory with a 4-6, 6-3, 6-4, 7-6 (3) victory over Nick Kyrgios at Wimbledon on Sunday. The title, his 21st at a Grand Slam, once seemed like a foregone conclusion, but nothing has been predictable or straightforward since his run in New York.
And somehow all of those obstacles and heartbreak make Sunday’s victory in front of a star-studded crowd, which included two future kings of England and Hollywood royalty, all the more sweet. Djokovic stayed locked in and focused — despite repeated theatrics across the net from his opponent — and won his fourth straight title, and seventh overall, at the All England Club.
While he had been calm and collected for most of the match, he couldn’t hide his emotions at the end — raising his hands in triumph and letting out an exaggerated sigh of relief.
“I lost words for what this tournament, what this trophy means to me,” Djokovic said on the court. “It always has been, and will be, the most special tournament in my heart, the one that motivated me to start playing tennis.”
Djokovic’s status for the 2022 US Open is in doubt due to pandemic-related restrictions for entry into the United States, and remaining unable to apply for a visa to Australia at least at the present time, Djokovic knew this might be his only chance in the foreseeable future to win a major title. He seized the opportunity, knowing it might be the last Grand Slam chance he gets until the French Open next spring.
He made sure it counted.
This time a year ago, after Djokovic collected his latest hardware at the All England Club, things were different. He was on pace for the elusive Calendar Slam, joining just two men in history to do so, and even had the chance to join Steffi Graf as the only players to achieve the Golden Slam at the then-upcoming Olympic Games.
But that didn’t lessen the excitement for what he could do in New York. All eyes were on him as he looked to do the near impossible in winning every Grand Slam of 2021, and break the three-way tie, with Nadal and Roger Federer, for the most majors by a male player. But in the final, he was routed in three sets by Daniil Medvedev.
And then, well, 2022 happened. Djokovic admitted the experience in Melbourne took a toll on him.
“Certainly this year has not been the same like last years,” he said. “It has started the way it has started and it has affected me, definitely, in the first several months of the year. I was not feeling great generally. I mean, mentally, emotionally, I was not at a good place.”
— Novak Djokovic (@DjokerNole) July 10, 2022
Djokovic had played in just one tournament before April — in Dubai, where he revealed he simply “wasn’t feeling myself on court.” Then he missed events like Indian Wells and Miami because of his inability to enter the United States.
Medvedev took over the top spot in the rankings. When he did return for the European clay season, Djokovic lost his opening match at Monte Carlo, and fell in the final at his hometown tournament at the Serbian Open. There was a victory at the Italian Open, but in Paris, where it mattered the most, he was unable to defend his title. Nadal, who had taken over the major record at the Australian Open, furthered his lead by winning No. 22.
It was a staggering turn of events in less than a year atop the game’s hierarchy.
Djokovic’s coach, Goran Ivanisevic, himself a former Wimbledon champion, said he wasn’t surprised it took Djokovic time to return to his previous mental and physical form.
“[It] was a huge thing what happened to him,” Ivanisevic said Sunday. “We all expected from him after a couple of weeks, ‘OK, forget about Australia, let’s go back and practice.’ It’s not happening like this.”
Djokovic opted to skip all of the lead-in grass events and arrived at Wimbledon — ranked No. 3 but the top seed with the absence of Medvedev and Zverev — in a sea of uncertainty. How would he play? When would he play next? He couldn’t answer.
But what he did do, perhaps in the absence of answers, was show a different side of his personality, posting videos and photos to his social media of his family and having his young son Stefan join him for highly publicized practice sessions. His wife, Jelena, not always a fixture at his matches, was frequently seen in his box. He posted memes to his Instagram story and joked around during news conferences.
20 of the last 22 men’s singles Grand Slam titles have gone to Federer, Nadal, and Djokovic.
We’re familiar with the other two 😉 pic.twitter.com/najStY5pmD
— US Open Tennis (@usopen) July 10, 2022
On the grass in London, he lost his level in his opener against Kwon Soon-woo, dropping the second set, but then went on to steamroll his way into the fourth round. There was a slight hiccup against Tim van Rijthoven in the fourth round, but his biggest test of the tournament was in the quarters against Jannik Sinner. Losing the first two sets, it looked as if Djokovic was facing another early exit. But a bathroom self-pep-talk reinvigorated him, and he dominated the final three sets for a comeback victory. He had a slow start against Cameron Norrie in the semifinals, but then left nothing to chance.
And on Sunday, against the oft-electrifying Kyrgios, one of the most beloved and hated players in tennis, Djokovic struggled initially with Kyrgios’ powerful serve — the Aussie dropped just five points on serve in the opening set — but Djokovic eventually figured his opponent out. As Kyrgios grew increasingly more frustrated, yelling at his team and himself and at one point even throwing his water bottle during a changeover, Djokovic pounced on every opportunity.
Kyrgios called Djokovic “a bit of a god” on court, and later praised Djokovic’s unflappable nature to reporters.
“He’s just really composed,” Kyrgios said. “It’s weird, I felt like he didn’t do anything amazing today. He returned obviously the way he returns. I feel like he’s just a great returner. But he was just so composed. That’s what I was just thinking to myself. In big moments, it just felt like he was never rattled.
“I feel like that’s his greatest strength, he just never looks rattled. He just looks completely within himself the whole time.”
After the match, Djokovic admitted he had no idea when he would next play a competitive tennis match. He expressed hope COVID restrictions would ease ahead of the US Open or that he might be granted an exemption but knew nothing was guaranteed and insisted he had no plans on getting vaccinated.
Still, despite his falling ranking and so much ambiguity about the coming months, Djokovic didn’t seem fazed. Instead he seemed mostly content with what he had achieved.
“I am on vacation,” Djokovic said. “Whether or not I’m playing any tournament soon, I’ll definitely be resting for the next couple weeks because it has been quite an exhausting and demanding period for me the last few months. A lot of tennis, which I was very happy about.
“I got what I wanted here.”