The Malta Independent 24 September 2021, Friday

Djokovic wins Wimbledon to tie Federer, Nadal with 20 Slams

Associated Press Sunday, 11 July 2021, 19:10 Last update: about 3 months ago

Novak Djokovic tied Roger Federer and Rafael Nadal by claiming his 20th Grand Slam title Sunday, coming back to beat Matteo Berrettini 6-7 (4), 6-4, 6-4, 6-3 in the Wimbledon final.

The No. 1 -ranked Djokovic earned a third consecutive championship at the All England Club and sixth overall.

He adds that to nine titles at the Australian Open, three at the U.S. Open and two at the French Open to equal his two rivals for the most majors won by a man in tennis history.

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The 34-year-old from Serbia is now the only man since Rod Laver in 1969 to win the first three major tournaments in a season. He can aim for a calendar-year Grand Slam — something last accomplished by a man when Laver did it 52 years ago — at the U.S. Open, which starts Aug. 30.

This was Djokovic's 30th major final — among men, only Federer has played more, 31 — and the first for Berrettini, a 25-year-old from Italy who was seeded No. 7.

It was a big sporting day in London for Italians: Their national soccer team faced England at Wembley Stadium in the European Championship final at night.

With Marija Cicak officiating, the first female chair umpire for a men's final at a tournament that began in 1877, play began at Centre Court as the sun made a rare appearance during the fortnight, the sky visible in between the clouds.

The opening game featured signs of edginess from both, but especially Djokovic, whose pair of double-faults contributed to the half-dozen combined unforced errors, compared with zero winners for either. He faced a break point but steadied himself and held there and, as was the case with every set, it was Djokovic who took the lead by getting through on Berrettini's speedy serve.

Berrettini came in with a tournament-high 101 aces and that's where his game is built: free points off the serve and quick-strike forehands that earned him the nickname “Hammer.”

Those powerful strokes sent line judges contorting to get their head out of harm's way. Djokovic occasionally took cover himself, crouching and raising his racket as if it were a shield to block back serves aimed at his body.

Not many opponents return serves at 137 mph and end up winning the point, but Djokovic did that at least twice. And the big groundstrokes that the 6-foot-5, barrel-chested Berrettini can drive past most other players kept coming back off Djokovic's racket.

That's what Djokovic does: He just forces foes to work so hard to win every point, let alone a game, a set, a match.

Indeed, this one could have been over much sooner: Djokovic took leads of 4-1 in the first set, 4-0 in the second and 3-1 in the third. But in the first, especially, he faltered in ways he rarely does, wasting a set point and getting broken when he served for it at 5-3.

In the ensuing tiebreaker, they were tied at 3-all, but Berrettini won three of the next four points with forehands, and closed it out with a 138 mph ace.

He strutted to the changeover and many in the full house of nearly 15,000 rose to celebrate along with him.

But Djokovic is nothing if not a fighter — he turned things around from two sets down in the French Open final last month — and he worked his way back into this one, which ended with Djokovic on his back on the court, basking in the crowd's cheers.

They weren't on his side throughout. Chants of “Ma-tte-o!” rang out early in the third set. Soon, others responded with Djokovic's nickname, “No-le!” Later in the set, Djokovic held his racket to his ear and motioned for more support.

There were some magical moments, points that contained brilliance by both.

On one, Berrettini somehow came up with a back-to-the-net, between-the-legs lob that Djokovic somehow tracked down to flick a response with his own back to the court, but it ended up in the net.

On another, which lasted 15 strokes, Djokovic slid into a keep-the-point-going defensive backhand and, after Berrettini replied with a drop shot, sprinted all the way up for a winner. Djokovic raised his index finger — “I’m No. 1!” and waved his hand for more noise — and Berrettini flipped his racket end over end, caught it and smiled.

What more could he do?

Not much anyone can against Djokovic, it seems.

He has collected eight of the past 12 major trophies — all since turning 30, the most by a man past that age.

And for all of the questions in recent years about when the younger generation would step forward and stop the progress of the Big Three, turns out Djokovic is singlehandedly holding off the kids.

In this year’s three major finals, he beat a trio of 20-somethings who are ranked in the top 10 and seeking a first Grand Slam title: 25-year-old Daniil Medvedev on the hard courts of the Australian Open, 22-year-old Stefanos Tsitsipas on the red clay of the French Open and now Berrettini on the grass.

Djokovic’s returns are as good as anyone’s ever. His two-handed backhand is such a threat. His ability to anticipate shots from the other side of the net and track them down frustrates foes. A consummate baseline wizard, he can play at the net, too. Against Berrettini, Djokovic won 34 of the 48 points when he went forward, including going 7 for 9 when he serve-and-volleyed.

For all of that, though, maybe what sets him apart above all is a quality that is not tracked by stats.

When the moments are most crucial, the tension and heart rate ratchet up. The mind and body can lock up. It’s simply human nature. Djokovic is somehow impervious to that sort of thing. Or at least plays as if he is.

Maybe it’s all of his experience in such situations. Maybe it’s all of the accumulated know-how.

Maybe it’s some enviable combination of grit and guts — to go along with all of his enviable talent and unrelenting hard work.

Let’s not forget that Djokovic faced championship points against Federer in the 2019 Wimbledon final. Or that he trailed two sets to none in two different matches at the French Open before coming back to win in five, including in the final.

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