What a strange Wimbledon it had been for Novak Djokovic – but what a brilliant ending for the man invariably described as “the complex Serb”. Few saw a fourth title coming – apart, that is, from Andy Murray, player-turned-pundit for this tournament who put the case for Djoko when everyone else was baffled at the man’s blow-ups.
Djokovic blitzed Kevin Anderson in the first two sets and the final was heading towards embarrassment for the lofty South African. He rallied after that but there was no halting the intimidating power of the man from Belgrade who triumphed 6-2, 6-2, 7-6 (7-3) for his 13th Grand Slam title overall.
Just a week before, Djokovic had railed against the Centre Court, or rather an over-refreshed and World Cup football-deranged element who’d jeered him, calling his treatment “unfair”. He called an umpire’s penalty in his next match “unfair”. If this Wimbledon had been a reality dating show – and Djokovic has always sought Centre Court’s love – then he probably would have been voted off before a ball was struck in the semi-final with Rafael Nadal, and his play-out song could have been Jilted John by Jilted John for the heartbroken refrain “Yeah, yeah, it’s not fair”.
But what balls he did strike on Friday through Saturday. The Centre Court – its “football’s coming home” delirium by then vanquished – remembered those vicious returns from when Djokovic was at his imperious best. His exploding heart celebration in those earlier matches had looked awkward, like self-disembowelment. After beating Rafa there was some warmth in the crowd’s response. There was even more yesterday, after he’d produced more viciousness to leave Anderson reeling. Of course some people, not part of the great Roger Federer love-in at SW19, like abrasiveness and panto-villainy in their champs. They would have loved this show.
He wasn’t Jilted Djoko any more.
This was Djokovic’s first major for two years. A gasping crawl through the desert for a previously relentless winner which could be explained – but only partly – by injury, a crisis of confidence and what get called “private issues”.
Anderson, all 6ft 8ins of him, was appearing in only his second Slam final and his first at Wimbledon where a South African hadn’t been seen in either singles showdowns since 1921 when Brian Norton was runner-up to Bill Tilden.
A nice story concerning Anderson did the rounds beforehand about how this affable character, to make up for not having the complete array of the most scintillating shots, will try anything to squeeze an extra half percent out of his game and had once trekked all over New Zealand for a type of vinegar he hoped might make the difference. His only hope yesterday was if he’d sneaked something acidic into his opponent’s barley water.
In front of the Prime Minister and two Old Etonian thespians plus one from Harrow – Messrs Cumberbatch, Redmayne and Hiddleston – Anderson opened the proceedings in scorching sunshine. So many hand-fans were being fluttered this could have been a match played before cocktail-hour on the court behind Raffles. Anderson’s serves weren’t immediately scorching and, looking nervous, he double-faulted to hand Djokovic an instant advantage.
The crowd were fanning; they weren’t fawning – “Come on, Roger” shouted one wag. This might have made Djokovic grump. After playing a good shot to less than orgasmic acclaim he has a gesture which translates as “Come on – where else do you see such low, flat, hard, penetrating, heat-seeking, corner-finding returns like that?” But, having railed at his box and of course himself as well as fans and officialdom in this tournament, he kept his emotions in check and built his lead.
These were the victors of the longest semi-finals in Wimbledon history and the play was slow and pretty uneventful, especially on Anderson’s side of the net. The second set began like the first, Anderson losing his serve. Djokovic was finding the back of the court with nonchalance but he was only having to operate to the standard of his first week. That was sufficient as long as Anderson kept striking the ball off the wood. Well, racquets aren’t made of wood any more but you know what I mean.
Was Djokovic the Serb trying to win it in a hurry so we could all watch Croatia in the World Cup final? Unlikely that was his plan but at this rate he would soon be over Henman Hill and far away. But then Anderson took him to deuce on his serve. Wild cheering. Then the tall guy got to break point. Even louder whoops. He was serving better, being bolder. He managed five set points. But Djoko, about whom it’s often said is easy to admire but difficult to love, saw out a stunning triumph.