Novak Djokovic’s 10-month tennis odyssey ends with his 21st career Grand Slam at Wimbledon

LONDON — Ten months ago, Novak Djokovic stood devastated on the pitch at Arthur Ashe Stadium when his attempt at the elusive calendar slam in the US Open final was thwarted.

Ten turbulent months.

In between there was a global controversy that ended with deportation from Australia due to his unvaccinated status, as well as Rafael Nadal’s win at the Australian Open to break the record for major titles. Not to mention Djokovic’s fall from No. 1 and his crushing loss to Nadal in the quarterfinals at the French Open.

But now Djokovic, 35, is there at last back to the top of the tennis world.

He returned to great glory with a 4-6, 6-3, 6-4, 7-6(3) win 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 its run in New York.

And somehow all those obstacles and heartbreak make Sunday’s win all the sweeter in front of a star-studded crowd that included two future kings of England and Hollywood royalty. Djokovic remained trapped and focused – despite repeated theatrics over the net from his opponent – to win his fourth consecutive title and seventh overall at the All England Club.

Although he’d been calm and collected for most of the game, he couldn’t hide his emotion by the end – he raised his hands in triumph and let out an exaggerated sigh of relief.

“I’m lost for words what this tournament means, what this trophy means to me,” Djokovic said on the pitch. “It was and always will be the special tournament in my heart that motivated me to start playing tennis.”

Djokovic’s status for the 2022 US Open is in doubt due to pandemic-related restrictions on travel to the United States and as he is unable to apply for a visa to Australia, at least for now, Djokovic knew this could be his only chance of winning a major title for the foreseeable future. He jumped at the opportunity, knowing full well that this could be the last Grand Slam chance he gets until next spring’s French Open.

He made it count.

This time a year ago, after Djokovic picked up his latest hardware at the All England Club, it was different. He was on his way to the elusive Calendar Slam, where he joined only two men in history, and even had a chance to reach the Golden Slam at the then-upcoming Olympics with Steffi Graf as the only player.

His time in Tokyo was a disappointment. He was upset by Alexander Zverev in the semifinals and then lost to Pablo Carreno Busta in the bronze medal match and lost his cool.

But that didn’t lessen the excitement of what he could do in New York. All eyes were on him as he attempted to do the near-impossible to win every Grand Slam of 2021 and break the threesome with Nadal and Roger Federer for most majors by a male player. But in the final he was beaten in three sets by Daniil Medvedev.

And then, well, 2022 happened. Djokovic admitted the Melbourne experience had taken a toll on him.

“Certainly this year has not been the same as the last few years,” he said. “It started the way it started and it definitely influenced me in the first few months of the year. I didn’t feel good in general. I mean, mentally, emotionally, I wasn’t in a good place.”

Djokovic had only played in one tournament prior to April – in Dubai, where he revealed he just “didn’t feel on the court”. He then missed events like Indian Wells and Miami because he couldn’t enter the United States.

Medvedev took the top spot in the rankings. Returning for the European clay-court season, Djokovic lost his opening game in Monte Carlo and fell in the final at his hometown tournament at the Serbian Open. There was a win at the Italian Open, but he failed to defend his title in Paris, where it mattered most. Nadal, who had taken the Major record at the Australian Open, extended his lead by winning No. 22.

It was a stunning turn of events in less than a year at the top of the gaming hierarchy.

Djokovic’s coach Goran Ivanisevic, himself a former Wimbledon champion, said he wasn’t surprised Djokovic needed time to return to his former mental and physical form.

“[It] It was a big deal what happened to him,” Ivanisevic said on Sunday. “We all expected him after a couple of weeks, ‘Okay, forget Australia, let’s go back and train.’ That will not do.”

Djokovic opted to skip all lead-in turf events and arrived at Wimbledon – ranked 3rd but without Medvedev and Zverev at the top – in a sea of ​​uncertainty. How would he play? When would he play next? He couldn’t answer.

But what he did, perhaps in the absence of answers, was show another side of his personality, posting videos and photos of his family on his social media and taking his young son Stefan to well-publicized exercise sessions. His wife Jelena, who was not always an integral part of his games, was often seen in his box. He posted memes on his Instagram story and joked around during press conferences.

On the grass in London, he lost his level in his opener against Kwon Soon-woo and dropped the second set, but then rolled into the fourth round with steam. There was a slight hiccup against Tim van Rijthoven in the fourth round, but his biggest test of the tournament came in the quarterfinals against Jannik Sinner. After losing the first two sets, it looked like Djokovic could face another early elimination. But a bathroom self-encouragement chat reinvigorated him and he dominated the final three sets for a comeback win. He got off to a slow start against Cameron Norrie in the semifinals, but then left nothing to chance.

And on Sunday, Djokovic battled the often-electrifying Kyrgios, one of tennis’s most popular and hated players, initially with Kyrgios’ powerful serve – the Australian lost just five points on serve in the opening set – but Djokovic eventually found his opponent out. As Kyrgios grew increasingly frustrated, yelling at his team and himself and once even throwing his water bottle during a substitution, Djokovic jumped at every opportunity.

Kyrgios called Djokovic “a little god” in court and later praised Djokovic’s unflappable nature to reporters.

“He’s just very composed,” said Kyrgios. “It’s weird, I felt like he didn’t do anything great today. He obviously came back the way he came back. I feel like he’s just a great returnee. But he was just so calm. That I was just thinking to myself In big moments, it just felt like he’d never been upset.

“I think that’s his greatest strength, he just never looks upset. He just looks inside himself all the time.”

After the match, Djokovic admitted he had no idea when he would next play a competitive tennis match. He expressed hope that 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 to get vaccinated.

But despite his falling ranking and so much ambiguity over the coming months, Djokovic didn’t seem worried. Instead, he seemed mostly content with what he had achieved.

“I’m on vacation,” said Djokovic. “Whether I play a tournament soon or not, I will definitely rest for the next few weeks because it has been quite a busy and trying time for me over the past few months. A lot of tennis, which made me very happy.

“I got what I wanted here.” Novak Djokovic’s 10-month tennis odyssey ends with his 21st career Grand Slam at Wimbledon

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