Novak Djokovic was lost for words. After two years of emotional and physical turmoil, he was back in the Wimbledon final. Only one match and Kevin Anderson stand between him and the trophy.
He had worked to be in the final, he had believed it was possible for him to be in the final and he had played like a serial champion who deserved to be in the final. But when it finally happened, when the final point of his 6-4, 3-6, 7-6(9) 3-6, 10-8 win over Rafael Nadal was done, Djokovic looked shell-shocked.
“It’s hard to pick the words,” he said after a long pause immediately after he had walked off court. “I’m just going through things, flashback to the last 15 months and everything I’ve been through to get here, to get to the finals and to win against the best player in the world in one of the longest matches I ever played over the two days. I don’t know – I’m just overwhelmed.
“It’s very special. It really could have gone either way. It was very clear that very few things separated the two players. Basically until the last shot I didn’t know if I’m going to win. I believed it but I knew that he was very, very close and he had some chances. These kind of matches you live for, you work for.”
It was the kind of match that had seemed so far beyond his reach just a few months ago. Then, Djokovic was recovering from elbow surgery and was reworking his serve to try and protect his fragile right arm. But that problem came on the back of a 12-month spell between 2016 and 17 when his motivation had deserted him and he was stumbling around the circuit losing matches and looking lost. Having won everything there was to win, he did not have the fight left to do it all again.
But it all came flooding back against Nadal. The rage was there – the roaring and the growling in Serbian when he missed his chances – but so was the zen-like calm. Break point down, bounce the ball a dozen time and thump down an ace or a service winner. He defended like a tiger, he turned that defence into attack in a nano-second and he just managed to keep Nadal at arm’s length for five hours and 15 minutes spread over two days to get the job done.
They began on after 8pm on Friday night, playing under the Centre Court roof and lights, but come the 11pm curfew imposed by the local council, they were only three sets into the semi-final.
Coming back at 1pm yesterday, Nadal was trailing by a set and needed to make a fast start. That he did but with Djokovic serving first in the fifth set, he could not hold off his tormentor forever. Nadal was missing too often with his forehand and he was not serving consistently enough – Djokovic was simply the better player, even if the margins were infinitesimal.
“He’s probably the greatest fighter ever to play this game,” Djokovic said of Nadal. “He battles every single point like it’s his last. That’s something that is so impressive with Rafa. That’s what makes him so difficult to beat on any surface. You’re coming into the match against him, knowing that you have to earn your points, is already an energy-spending moment. So you have to be ready for it, obviously.
“That’s why you put in X amount of hours on the practice court, preparation, trying to be as professional as you can, because you need to compete with a guy like Nadal. He does the same.”
Anderson will present a very different challenge today, provided he has been able to recover from his six hour, 36 minute marathon against John Isner on Friday. His body will be sore after that battle but his mind must be fried after so long on court – he won 26-24 in the fifth set.
The tall South African has a fierce serve, he is more than able from the baseline, he can come forward and he has a reinforced sense of belief now that he has reached two grand slam finals in the past ten months (his first was the US Open last September). But Anderson has only beaten Djokovic once in six meetings and that was back in 2008.
“I don’t know if I’ll be the clear favourite,” Djokovic said. “I think we’re quite even. He’s playing I think his second grand slam finals. He’s definitely playing the tennis of his life. He’s coming off from two epic marathon five-set wins. I don’t think he has much to lose really tomorrow. He’s going to come out with big serves and big tennis. Hopefully I’ll be able to weather the storm.”
But after beating Nadal, Djokovic knows that he is back at his peak both mentally and physically. There is no storm he cannot weather now.