WIMBLEDON, England — No matter how hard he worked at becoming a fitter, more skilled tennis player the past few years, Novak Djokovic was never more than background noise to the only conversation that mattered in men’s tennis: Was Roger Federer or Rafael Nadal the sport’s best?
Sunday at the All England club, Djokovic blasted his way into the debate, dethroning two-time and defending champion Nadal to win the Wimbledon title he had dreamed of so long.
With the 6-4, 6-1, 1-6, 6-3 victory, the 24-year-old Serb snapped Nadal’s 20-match winning streak at Wimbledon and extended his own record in match play this year to 48-1.
In the process, Djokovic added unassailable credibility to the No. 1 world ranking he was assured of wresting from Nadal on Monday, regardless of Sunday’s outcome. Not only did Djokovic win his third Grand Slam title Sunday (and the second of three this year), he also beat Nadal for a fifth consecutive time since March.
Nadal, 25, who was seeking his 11th Grand Slam title, had not lost to any player five times in a row.
“This is the best day of my tennis career,” said Djokovic, who kissed Wimbledon’s grass court Friday upon winning his semifinal. On Sunday, after Nadal’s final backhand sailed wide to seal the outcome, Djokovic went a step further, plucking a blade of grass from the patchy Centre Court lawn and popping it in his mouth.
“It was well kept,” a smiling Djokovic said of his spontaneously ingested souvenir.
There was hardly a misplayed ball between Nadal and Djokovic through the first eight games, knotted at 4, as the crowd looked on with reverence at the power and precision of their strokes.
Serving at 4-5, Nadal played his first poor game, plowing a forehand into the net to give Djokovic the first break point of the match. The Serb converted on another forehand error by Nadal and claimed the opening set.
Still, a shift of momentum seemed likely given Nadal’s notorious tenacity.
But Djokovic played even better in the second set, racing all over the court to retrieve balls that looked like sure winners and send them back with even more pace. After two more service breaks and a quick 33 minutes, Djokovic led, two sets to none.
The Serb played a careless third set, and Nadal took swift advantage.
With Nadal finally on the scoreboard, trailing 2-1, shouts of “Vamos Rafa!” rang out, the crowd cheering for a five-set match.
But the Spaniard didn’t rally. With a chance to break Djokovic in the opening game of the fourth set, Nadal badly over-hit a forehand passing shot.
Nadal double-faulted to start the eighth game and blasted a backhand long to get broken. In the Spaniard’s guest box, Nadal’s father buried his head in his hands.
And Djokovic closed the match with bravado, following a huge serve to the net for a winning volley to set up match point.
“In those moments, you have to believe that you can do it — not wait for your opponent to make a mistake,” Djokovic said.
In the Royal Box, Serbian President Boris Tadic jumped to his feet and thrust his arms in the air.
Just a few years earlier, as Federer and Nadal took turns raising Grand Slam trophies, Djokovic was known as the court jester of men’s tennis — nicknamed “Djoker,” in fact, for the hilarious impersonations he did of Nadal and Maria Sharapova. No one questioned his talent, but his gravitas was suspect. Djokovic forever seemed to be halting matches to receive medical treatment for one ailment or another. His attention wandered, and more than one racket got bashed in frustration.
Sunday at Wimbledon, Djokovic was the pride of his country and the champion that he knew he could one day be. He was also the man who had beaten Nadal five times in a row.
Asked afterward about the technical ways in which Djokovic had outplayed him, Nadal replied that he viewed tennis as ultimately a simple game.
“I lose because I am playing against the best player of the moment — the best player of the world tomorrow. And I am the second,” Nadal said.
“When one player is better than you, at this moment the only thing you can do is work, try to find solutions, and try to wait a little bit for your time. Last five times [against Djokovic] wasn’t my time. I gonna wait and I gonna try to a sixth. And if the sixth doesn’t happen, to the seventh. It’s going to be like this. That’s the spirit of the sport.”