WIMBLEDON, England — As a 7-year-old, Novak Djokovic dreamed of winning Wimbledon. He spent much of his Serbian childhood, when he was not hitting tennis balls, crafting homemade Wimbledon trophies from things he found around the house.
So when he won his first Wimbledon championship in 2011 and claimed the No. 1 world ranking the next day, he was sure all his dreams had come true.
But time humbles us all, tennis champions included. For Djokovic, the past 15 months were particularly harsh, starting with a breakup with his longtime coach, an elbow injury that cost him the final six months of 2017, a February surgery that he had tried to avoid, and a rocky return to competition that was riddled with doubt, disappointment and frustration as he changed rackets and retooled facets of his game.
On Centre Court on Sunday, when Djokovic threw his head back, flung his arms wide and roared to the heavens, it was partly euphoria over beating a depleted Kevin Anderson to win his fourth Wimbledon title. But on a deeper level, Djokovic was celebrating his triumph over a period of “turbulences,” as he later characterized it, in which he questioned whether he ever would return to the top ranks of the sport he loved.
“It’s usually in a struggle that you get to know yourself — you get to have an opportunity to rise like a phoenix and evolve and get better,” said Djokovic, 31, who extended his career Grand Slam total to 13 with Sunday’s victory.
It was his first Grand Slam title in more than two years, since he claimed the 2016 French Open amid a glorious a stretch in which he was nearly untouchable, winning five of six majors.
In Djokovic’s absence, Rafael Nadal and Roger Federer reclaimed their place atop the sport, as well as the No. 1 and 2 world rankings, respectively, by splitting the past six Grand Slam titles to extend their career tallies to 17 (Nadal) and 20 (Federer).
By snapping that streak with his 6-2, 6-2, 7-6 (7-3) victory Sunday, the day after ousting Nadal in a 5-hour 15-minute semifinal that crackled with brilliance on both sides, Djokovic made men’s tennis a three-way conversation again.
“The match against Nadal in the semis was one of the highest-level matches I have ever seen, over the whole five hours, start to finish,” veteran coach and ESPN analyst Darren Cahill said in an interview after Sunday’s final. “If Novak is not believing [in himself] now, he’s never going to — because we all are.”
Djokovic, for his part, acknowledged that some will question whether he can sustain the level of play he displayed in winning Wimbledon again.
“Trust me — I am, too,” the Serb said with a smile. Regardless, he added, winning his 13th major had given him “a huge confidence boost” and would serve as a springboard for the hard-court season ahead, which concludes with the season’s final major, the U.S. Open.
That said, Djokovic acknowledged that his opponent Sunday was laboring under a deficit.
Sapped from back-to-back five-set matches — including the second-longest match in Grand Slam history, at 6 hours 36 minutes, which he concluded just 48 hours before — Anderson lacked his customary power and precision on his serve. He frequently miss-timed his normally pulverizing forehand, committing 25 unforced errors in the first two sets alone (to Djokovic’s seven). And though his past as a middle-distance runner makes him surprisingly fleet for a 6-foot-8 athlete, Anderson appeared a step slow Sunday, had trouble sustaining rallies and called for a trainer to examine his right elbow in the first set, which sped by quickly.
Competing in his first Wimbledon final, Anderson was also a bit overwhelmed.
“You could feel he was nervous. You could feel he wasn’t playing at his best, was making a lot of errors,” Djokovic said.
All told, it amounted to ideal conditions for Djokovic, and the Serb struck quickly and without remorse, breaking Anderson’s serve in the opening game.
After dropping the first set in 26 minutes, Anderson tried pumping himself up with shouts of “C’mon!” whenever he held serve against Djokovic, the game’s best returner. But no alchemy on this day could transform those words to energy. Anderson gobbled bananas on changeovers, but a bushel wouldn’t have been enough to replenish all he had expended in reaching the final. (A total of 21 hours 1 second of tennis, to be precise, over his six previous matches compared with Djokovic’s 15:34.)
Two sets were gone before Anderson took his first lead, 2-1 in the third set. And the Centre Court crowd, which included the Duke and Duchess of Cambridge and former Wimbledon champions Bjorn Borg, Stefan Edberg, Chris Evert and Rod Laver, urged him on, eager to extend the afternoon’s entertainment.
Anderson raised his level impressively in the third set. He blasted seven aces to hold his serve six successive times and had five set points against Djokovic. But each time he faced pressure, the Serb answered with a winning volley, an unhittable forehand or an ace.
It was Wimbledon’s second consecutive straight-sets men’s final in which the victor faced a hampered opponent. Last July, Marin Cilic broke down in tears of frustration, his “mind blocked with the pain,” he explained later, from a blister on his left foot that prevented him from performing his best against Federer, who needed just three sets to claim his eighth Wimbledon championship.
Little could have been done to spare Cilic the blister, which flared up after his four-set semifinal. But in the case of Anderson, 32, a Wimbledon rule change could have spared him — and tennis fans worldwide — the interminable bashing and counter-bashing with American John Isner in Friday’s marathon semifinal.
Because Wimbledon doesn’t permit tiebreaks to settle fifth sets once knotted at 6-6, the semifinalists were forced to play until one man led by two games. That extended time topped two hours, with Anderson finally ending the deadlock 26-24.
Anderson said after Sunday’s final that he had barely slept Friday night. On Saturday, he sought a podiatrist’s help for his aching feet.
While he said he regretted being less than his best for his first Wimbledon final, Anderson will rise to a career-high No. 5 following his performance and leaves the All England Club with far more confidence than he had one year ago.
“The biggest takeaway for me is sort of the belief,” Anderson said. “Hopefully next time, right from the beginning, I’ll be able to play better tennis.”