Wimbledon 2018: The return of Novak Djokovic is the best possible thing that could have happened to tennis
Pop culture fiction always tries to convince us that there is a 'darkness' within everybody. A character can never be all good, or even all vanilla; he or she must necessarily have a streak of debilitating nastiness, which manifests itself in the form of violence or an act of unpardonable cruelty.
I'm not sure whether there's any truth to that idea. But anyone watching the Novak Djokovic Show over the last couple of years would have felt certain that the Serb had a darkness within him. A darkness which didn't quite manifest itself in the form of violence, but in the form of something almost as bad: indifference on the sporting field.
We know most of the reasons and justifications for that period in the wilderness, of course. After winning the 2016 French Open, Djokovic was in such rarefied air that even Roger Federer and Rafael Nadal were left trailing in his wake. The holder of all four Majors, the conqueror of every tennis surface, the executor of every conquest that the sport had to offer; was there anything more for him to keep playing for?
As it turned out, he ended up asking himself the same question - and the answer was not to be found. But the realization about the void took its own sweet time to hit home.
“Obviously I'm at the peak of my career at the moment,” Djokovic said at the start of Wimbledon 2016, just a couple of weeks after his epoch-defining win at Roland Garros. “It hopefully can still keep going. I see still lots of room for improvement, things that I can work on. That's something that encourages me. That's something that keeps me grounded in a way, gives me more reason to practice.”
It was only after a third-round loss at the hands of Sam Querrey that Djokovic first started betraying signs about the struggles he was facing. Even then, however, he still insisted that it wasn't motivation that was the problem, but something else entirely.
"We all have private issues and things that are more challenges than issues, things we have to encounter and overcome in order to evolve as a human being," he mysteriously said ahead of the 2016 US Open, while referring to his Wimbledon loss. "That was the period for me. Was resolved and life is going on like everything else."
Except that his life didn't go on like everything else. He proceeded to lose the US Open final to Stan Wawrinka, and later lost his No. 1 ranking to an inspired Andy Murray. By October, he finally seemed to have come out of denial.
"Winning the French Open this year has brought a lot of joy to me but on the other hand has taken away a lot from me, as well. I felt a little bit exhausted, I must say, and maybe less motivated," he said ahead of the Paris Masters 2016. A couple of weeks prior to that, he had also talked about how it had been "too much effort mentally, in training or in a match, to re-find this type of fulfillment that is the key to everything."
The issue had finally been laid bare before the world: Novak Djokovic, the most dominant tennis player of the decade, was struggling to commit himself fully to the sport. But recognizing the existence of a problem is the first step towards solving it, and we all felt that Djokovic would find a way to rediscover his fire very soon.
Then a strange thing happened: 2017 arrived, and with it, a fresh wave of denial from the Serb. "I don't know. I mean, it's not a time now to go so deep into it," Djokovic said after his stunning second-round loss to Denis Istomin at the 2017 Australian Open, in response to a question whether his French Open win had dimmed his hunger.
"I forgot about it, in a way. It's not affecting me," he added, almost sounding like he was convincing himself as much as he was convincing the press.
Djokovic's on-court showings dipped correspondingly; no longer fully invested in all his matches, he endured several early exits. His quarterfinal loss to Dominic Thiem at Roland Garros - where he got bagelled in the third set - set tongues wagging about whether he had tanked the match.
By the time Wimbledon 2017 rolled around, Djokovic almost sounded like a spokesperson for Pepe Imaz, the spiritual guru specializing in long hugs who had joined the Serb's team the previous year.
"I try not to (base all my happiness on winning a tennis match) any more," Djokovic said in the pre-Wimbledon press conference. "It's a different approach, but I'm still here and I'm still motivated."
Was he really motivated though? An elbow injury which forced him out of Wimbledon seemed to be the last straw. He took the rest of the year off, presumably in the hope that the new year would bring new joy to his tennis career.
But the start of 2018 wasn't too kind to him either. A fourth-round loss to Hyeon Chung at the Australian Open prompted him to undergo a surgery to repair his long-standing elbow problem. And when he returned to the tour in Indian Wells, he looked like a different player.
The serve was seriously wrong. The backhand was all over the place. The consistency from the baseline was practically non-existent. And worst of all, the clutch tennis was nowhere to be seen; instead of raising his level on the big points, he was now playing his worst tennis in the crunch moments.
Losses to Taro Daniel, Benoit Paire and Martin Klizan followed, and for the first time, the tennis world started wondering whether Djokovic would ever return to his Slam-winning ways. It wasn't just about lack of motivation any more; he now seemed physically unable to compete with the top players. Could there be any way back from such a drastic fall from grace?
I'd like to say "We should have known better" here, but there were still more horrors to come. After a couple of months where he showed marked improvement - most notably giving Nadal a run for his money in the Rome semifinals - Djokovic inexplicably lost to Marco Cecchinato at Roland Garros. That wasn't such a bad thing in itself, but the press conference that followed was possibly the strangest and most dispirited one he'd ever given in his career.
"I don't know." "I'm back in the locker room, that's where I'm back." "I don't know." "I cannot give you any answer." "I don't know if I'm going to play on grass." "I'm just not thinking about tennis at the moment." "I don't know."
Those lines, uttered in varying degrees of dejection, comprised the bulk of the interview. Speaking to reporters immediately after a soul-crushing loss is always a difficult thing to do, but the number of times Djokovic said "I don't know" suggested that his struggles were beyond his comprehension.
This is the "We should have known better" moment that I was looking for earlier. As we all know now, Djokovic eventually did play on grass, and he played on it like a champion. Sure he lost in the Queens final to Marin Cilic, a loss that saw him squander match points and prompt a new flood of doubts in our minds, but in hindsight that was a minor blip on his final road to recovery.
Today, Djokovic is the reigning Wimbledon champion. He has broken the Federer-Nadal duopoly over the Majors (the two had shared the previous six Slams between them), and is almost certain to finish 2018 inside the top 5 of the ATP rankings. He looks like a dominant force in men's tennis again - and the favorite to win the next two Slams.
The return was as sudden and as dramatic as the fall. What changed in the short one-month gap between Roland Garros and Wimbledon? How did he go from crippling self-doubt in Paris to unshakable self-belief in Wimbledon?
According to Djokovic, it was an inevitability; things had to fall in place eventually. In his press conference after the Wimbledon final Djokovic said, "I got back to the court too fast (after the surgery). I wasn't ready to compete - Indian Wells, Miami were not great. It took me several months really to regain the confidence, to go back to basics and start to hit as many balls on the practice court as possible so (that) I can feel comfortable playing on the high level."
"It took me many tournaments, and I couldn't pick a better place in the world (than this) to peak and to make a comeback."
Superstar athletes have a way of making things appear easy. Djokovic's words suggest that it was just a matter of time before he got back to the top; that all he had to do was keep plugging away, and the trophies would start falling in his lap again.
But anyone who watched the titanic battle between Djokovic and Nadal in the semifinals would attest that it wasn't just a matter of time. Djokovic could easily have been knocked out at various stages of that match, and if that had happened, we would have been talking about his inner demons again right now - and not his triumphant comeback.
"I learned how to be patient in this process," Djokovic said in his press conference. And he was nothing if not patient in the semifinal which, to my mind, rivals the 2008 Wimbledon final for shot-making quality.
Nadal was in ferocious form almost throughout the match, and at one stage was in prime position to take a two sets to one lead. But Djokovic saved three set points in the third set tiebreaker by playing some lethally calm tennis that showed just how technically sound his game is.
In fact, I'd even say that up to the dying moments of the fifth set, it was Djokovic's technical proficiency and physical superiority - more than his mental fortitude - that helped him stay in the match. He seemed to be playing within himself for the most part, because he knew he was good enough to stare down Nadal's best and live to tell the tale.
Until he went down two break points at 4-4, that is. There was no longer any room for error or risk at that point; engaging in a rally with the hard-charging Spaniard could've been a recipe for disaster. That was the moment Djokovic chose to bring out his best - two big serves that Nadal couldn't get back in play.
Two more break points at 7-7 were similarly saved by clutch serving. And one last break point was saved with an inch-perfect forehand pass that will probably go down in folklore as one of the best shots of the decade - just like his forehand return winner on match point against Federer at the 2011 US Open.
The final against Kevin Anderson was a much more straightforward affair, but even in that match Djokovic served like a monster at the slightest hint of trouble. He saved five break points in the third set - three of which were set points - by repeatedly coming up with a big first serve to which Anderson had no answer.
Producing your best when nothing else will do is a quality that very few in the history of humanity have possessed. We knew Djokovic had it when he was dominating tennis, but we thought he had lost it forever as he stumbled from one loss to another in the first half of 2018.
Regaining it wasn't just a matter of time. It was a process so arduous that all of us watching thought it was impossible.
Djokovic himself wasn't sure when or how it would happen. After his semifinal win over Nadal he said, "There were moments of doubt, of frustration, disappointment, where you're questioning whether you want to keep it going in this way or that way, where is that taking you?"
Fortunately, it took him to his fourth Wimbledon title, and 13th Slam overall. I say 'fortunately' because this is the best possible thing that could have happened to tennis. Don't let the outpouring of nostalgia the past couple of years fool you; the fact that Federer and Nadal were dominating with so little resistance from the rest of the field was a bad advertisement for the sport.
But that's not the only reason why Djokovic's win is worthy of celebration. His return has reminded us that he is not just a foil to Federer and Nadal; he is a virtuoso in his own right, with a story as compelling as theirs - if not more.
At the trophy presentation, Djokovic said that this win felt especially amazing because for the first time in his life he could hear someone screaming "Daddy, daddy!" to cheer him on. His son Stefan looked like the personification of cuteness in the stands, and as Djokovic looked at him and smiled, our hearts collectively melted.
After two years of turmoil, Djokovic now looks - with a super-cute family in tow - like a picture of contentment. His game is back to its indefatigable, I'll-bend-till-I-break best, but his body language is somehow more serene and composed than it ever was before - both on and off the court. Even while Nadal was raging like a bull, Djokovic withstood all the pressure with a quietness that belied his passion. And in all his recent press conferences, he's talked sedately about the 'process', 'self-belief' and 'ambition' needed to get back to the top.
Call it the six stages of sporting evolution if you will. Unimaginable success (four consecutive Slams), followed by a let-down (early losses everywhere), followed by denial (the whole Pepe Imaz phase), followed by indifference (Roland Garros 2017), followed by frustration (Roland Garros 2018), and finally culminating in renewed success (Wimbledon 2018) - but this time with a calmer, more mature outlook.
It's a saga worthy of being turned into both a book AND a movie. And the best part? It's not even close to being over.