Djokovic had entertained the tournament with tales of living with wolves as a boy while hiding in the woods near Belgrade to escape civil war and now being imbued with their spirit. He had too much bite for Matteo Berrettini despite the Italian’s outrageously whopping serve.
Berrettini likes to blow on his racket as if it was a frontier outlaw’s rifle when he’s hit a boomer and imperilled the cowering line judges. Once the gunsmoke had cleared, the scoreboard read 6-7 (4-7), 6-4, 6-4, 6-3. Berrettini wasn’t the good, the bad or the ugly in losing the final. Better to say he was simply playing Djokovic.
The Serb’s sixth triumph at SW19, after three hours and 24 minutes, lifts him onto 20 Majors and at last he’s drawn level with Roger Federer and Rafael Nadal, the tennis godheads he’s been pursuing so relentlessly. He will feel as if he’s established an exclusive club of one if he goes on to win the US Open and complete a calendar Slam. And if he wins at the Olympics to make it a golden Slam? Surely that will be argument over.
This was to be the 139mph man vs the best returner in tennis as Berrettini led his fellow Monte Carlo dweller onto Centre Court to football-style whoops. It was a Covid-defying full-house, and because of the uncertainty caused by the pandemic, plenty of tickets had been grabbed by an egalitarian mob - euphemism alert: rowdy - including plenty of Italians and Italians-for-the-day.
Djokovic opened with a double fault. Ironic “Woo!” Another followed but the defending champ quashed the break point. Berrettini, for starters, served at 135mph then bounced a smash into the Royal Box.
It was blustery and the world No 1 double-faulted again. Berrettini wound up his thumping forehand but Djokovic contorted himself to block. There were chances for Berrettini in the early games but under little pressure he kept finding the net. Obviously the mere presence of Djokovic is pressure enough, though, especially when the Serb instigates the kind of psycho-rallies where the opponent, screaming inside, might fluff a shot so they can escape. Berrettini lost his serve.
The misses continued. Too long, too wide, too timid. Serving to stay in the first set, a smash was flunked, a drop shot contained too much air. This game was interminable but Berrettini’s serve saved him - with a blow on the barrel to cool it down - and the roar was thunderous. Could it inspire him to break Djokovic? The wolf tried a drop shot and Berrettini pounced like a panther. Even bigger roar. Berrettini forced the tiebreak. A stupendous forehand, but then he got too excited. Once again Djoko went for dropo; once again Berrettini was too quick. Then a 138mph ace won him the set.
Djokovic had been halfway to a calendar Slam once before - in 2016 when winning the French for the first time seemed to exhaust him mentally and he was dumped out at SW19 by Sam Querrey. Would there be a Querrey query this time? But if anything for Berrettini, the opening game of the second set was going to be a bigger test for and he immediately lost his serve. Djokovic kills with consistency; he’s tyrannical about it. The Italian lost his next one, too, this despite a great stop-volley warmly applauded by Djokovic. He may be a tyrant but he’s a sporting one.
Djokovic must have wondered how he lost the first set; Berrettini sleepily, may have asked: “What time does the second set start?” But then: he clawed back a break. He saved three set points. It wasn’t quite enough, though, and, boiling up with brilliant volleying from both men, the match was tied.
Shouts of “Matteo, Matteo!” were met with cries of “Novak, Novak!” but more of the crowd favoured the Italian, to the Serb’s occasional displeasure. Djokovic is not the only sporting genius admired rather than out-and-out loved. In football Cristiano Ronaldo always used to be placed just behind Lionel Messi. The Argeninian was brilliant and a team player; the Portuguese was merely brilliant. That’s what nearly everyone said.
But as time went on and the men moved into their thirties, Messi stopped winning, Ronaldo kept going and found himself the beneficiary of praise which was no longer grudging. Perhaps, at 34, this will be Djokovic: we will stop calling him a machine and suddenly marvel at him performing the splits to reach a ball way beyond the tramlines - just like we marvel at Ronaldo’s high-leaping headers. We will smile at his strutting and pouting, other things he shares with Ronaldo but which are not the traits of Federer, Nadal or Messi.
Same as the previous sets, Djokovic forced an early break. His defence is the tennis equivalent of football’s catenaccio and was surely admired by Berrettini who wasn’t doing much wrong now but if he didn’t clobber early with his forehand the points invariably went Djokovic’s way.
It was getting closer to kick-off in the football so the chanting got louder and more and more insistent and there was little the final’s first-ever woman umpire, Marija Cicak, could do about it. Berrettini was battling hard - and giving lie to the theory that “when the going gets tough, the Italians go shopping” - but Djokovic took the third set.
The sixth game of the fourth seemed crucial. Djokovic, serving, was love-30 down but he dug himself out with a kissed volley, on the charge with the geometry heavily against him, which surely the shot on the match. Next game he broke Berrettini and powered his way to the title.
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