He first drew attention with his imitations – picture-perfect impressions of the on-court movements and gestures of Roger Federer, Andy Roddick, John McEnroe, and most hilariously, Rafael Nadal and Maria Sharapova.
On Centre Court on Sunday, Novak Djokovic made a pretty good impression of his own in hammering Nadal, 6-4, 6-1, 1-6, 6-3.
Win or lose, Djokovic had clinched the world number-one ranking just by reaching the final. Playing the man he called “the best player in the world,” Djokovic showed he deserves the ranking on the court as well as on the computer.
Nadal’s extraordinary fitness and strength have made him nearly unbeatable in Grand Slam finals – 7-0 since 2008 going into Sunday’s match. He battles relentlessly, never giving up on a point, never conserving energy by playing out the string in a seemingly hopeless set. The physical grind of all those long points has the effect of early-round body blows from a boxer; they pay off later as the opponent wears down.
Yet Nadal must have felt he was looking into a mirror on Wimbledon’s main stage. Djokovic dominated the long points in taking the first two sets, showing off his vastly improved conditioning. For once, it was Nadal whose ground strokes found the net to end the extended rallies, Nadal who was being pushed from corner to corner, Nadal who saw shots he thought were winners come back for yet another exchange.
Djokovic won the first set by converting his first break point of the match, then sprinted through the second set in just thirty-two minutes. Nadal was on his heels, forced into defensive mode by Djokovic’s strong serve and winning returns.
But in the third set, Djokovic’s own Achilles heel reappeared, a palpably fragile confidence that in the past has prevented him from getting the most out of his all-court gifts. A slow player at the best of times, Djokovic noticeably increased the number of times he bounced the ball before serving to Nadal at 30-40 in the second game; a netted serve and backhand gave Nadal the opening he needed. Another followed at 1-4 after Djokovic saved two break points; he promptly served his only double-fault to hand the set to Nadal.
Faced with a match turning against him, the Serbian gathered himself and won a quick service game, then broke Nadal at 0-1; he had now won all four break points he’d earned on the afternoon. Nadal broke back, but Djokovic steadied, served strong, and resumed his dominance of the long rallies. He held at love for 4-3, then took a love-40 lead to push Nadal into a corner.
Five minutes later, he was on his back on the grass, preparing to lift the third Grand Slam trophy of his career.
“This is the best day of my life, the most special day of my life,” he told the crowd, clasping the victor’s cup as though he would never let it go. Wimbledon was the first tournament he ever watched, the one he dreamed of winning through 20 years of practice and training.
“I believe on the court that I can win,” he said in an interview with McEnroe, and he demonstrated that newly reinforced belief by seizing the match in the fourth set when it could easily have slipped away.
Throughout the Wimbledon fortnight, the discussion was building around Nadal as to whether he, not Federer, was perhaps the greatest player of all time. Nadal’s 17-8 advantage head-to-head over Federer – 6-2 in Grand Slams — has long given pause to those who believe that Federer’s 16 Slams make an iron-clad case.
Now Djokovic has added a new wrinkle into the argument. He has taken eight of his last ten matches against Nadal, all five this year, and proved he can dominate a five-setter against the former world number-one. Nadal still holds a 16-12 advantage over Djokovic, but those numbers are closing fast.
Next up are the U.S. Open hard courts, where Nadal defeated Djokovic in the 2010 final. The next great rivalry is just heating up.