Novak Djokovic goes for the Golden Slam at Tokyo Olympics


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There must be something about communing with wolves. Novak Djokovic has attributed his phenomenal success to many things — his perilous youth in war-ravaged Serbia, his inspirational first coach Jelena Genčić, his no-stone-unturned perfectionism, his legendary rivals Roger Federer and Rafael Nadal, his savvy touring team, along with his beloved family. But wolves?

Asked about his fighting spirit after his Wimbledon third-round win, Djokovic didn’t hesitate. “A part of it is genes — my family, the way I’ve grown up during difficult times for my country. Part of it comes from my upbringing in the mountains. I spent a lot of time in the mountains with wolves. So this is wolf energy right here. I’m not kidding, actually!”

In the Wimbledon final, that dynamic animal energy fuelled Djokovic’s 21st straight Big W victory and his 21st straight win Grand Slam match in 2021. Most important, his convincing 6-7 (4), 6-4, 6-4, 6-3 triumph over a determined Matteo Berrettini gave him three-quarters of the Holy Grail — a men’s calendar-year Grand Slam last achieved by Rod Laver in 1969 — with only the US Open left to conquer. A 21st major title there would break the current three-way tie with Roger and Rafa. Although Djokovic likes to say, “I’m not chasing anyone, I’m making my own path,” for the past decade, he’s relentlessly chased — and finally caught — his archrivals.

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A “Golden Slam,” a feat even rarer and achieved only by Steffi Graf in 1988, beckons the splendid Serb if he captures a gold medal at the Tokyo Olympics and the US Open. That would cement Djokovic’s status as the GOAT, and he looks unstoppable. His path has become smoother as Nadal and Federer are skipping the Olympics. Federer, who turns 40 on August 8, looked slow, rusty and old at Wimbledon, far from the majestic Federer of old.

As for the so-called Next Gen — the most recent iteration after a decade of failed Next Genners — Djokovic thrashed Daniil Medvedev, 25, in the Australian Open final; overcame a two-set deficit to stymie Stefanos Tsitsipas, 22, in the French Open final; and dropped only two sets, one against 19-year-old wild card Jack Draper and the other against Berrettini, 25, during the Wimbledon fortnight.

Although Djokovic was the consensus favourite to win his sixth Wimbledon, Berrettini had the proverbial “puncher’s chance.” In fact, the strapping, 6’5”, 209-pound Italian is a heavyweight with two knockout punches, his serve and his forehand. En route to the final, his booming first serve averaged 132 mph and his second serve 111 mph, he smacked a tournament-high 101 aces, and he won a terrific 61 percent of his second-serve points, while losing serve only five times.

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The Berrettini forehand was almost as lethal, as he proved when he belted 24 winners in his impressive 6-3, 6-0, 6-7, 6-4 semifinal victory over 14th-seeded Hubert Hurkacz. In the quarterfinals, Berrettini stopped 16th-seeded Felix Auger-Aliassime in four sets. The 20-year-old Canadian, the youngest and probably the most talented Next Genner, upset fourth-seeded Alexander Zverev in five sets to make his first major quarterfinal.

Meanwhile, 24-year-old Hurkacz, the Miami Open champion in March, upset No. 2 Daniil Medvedev in five sets, winning an excellent 72 percent (50 of 69) net approaches. Then, the 6’5” Pole trounced Federer, his boyhood inspiration and idol, 6-3, 7-6, 6-0 to reach his first major semifinal. “It’s a dream come true,” said mild-mannered Hubie, who whacked 36 winners offset by only 12 unforced errors. Eight-time champion Federer hadn’t lost in straight sets at Wimbledon since 2002.

Mother’s visionary advice

Denis Shapovalov, a swashbuckling lefty, also made his first Grand Slam semifinal. The 22-year-old Canadian is renowned for electrifying winners but also reckless errors, all too often on big points. Shapo never lost faith in his mother-coach Tessa’s visionary advice. “I always wanted to be the one dictating,” he told The New York Times. “I was always coming to the net from 10, 12 years old, getting lobbed back there, losing points. My mom always told me: ‘Later on, you’re going to grow, and this is going to be an advantage to you.’”

How right his mom was! Shapovalov, now 6’1” tall, toned down the hyperaggression just enough to reduce his unforced errors. The felicitous result: he overpowered No. 8-seeded Roberto Bautista Agut 6-1, 6-3, 7-5 and then outlasted No. 25 Karen Khachanov in a bruising five-set quarterfinal. His much-improved one-handed backhand led the tournament in backhand speed, averaging 78 mph, and winners.

Winning the critical points and tiebreakers is the key to winning close matches, and no one does that better than Djokovic, who had won 15 of his last 16 major semifinals. That didn’t seem to faze heavy underdog Shapovalov, who lost only two points in his first four service games. His huge, swerving, lefty serve and bold forehand carried him to an opening set tiebreaker.

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But could Shapovalov sustain his high-powered offense against the greatest serve returner and defensive player in history?

His hopes for a shocking upset were quickly tempered as he repeatedly overhit and missed shots. “He has such a high high, but he can make so many errors if he’s too exuberant,” said former No. 1 Jim Courier.

Djokovic took the tiebreaker 7-3. Then he staved off five break points in the second set and three more in the crucial opening game of the third set to prevail 7-6, 7-5, 7-5 in a smorgasbord of stunning shotmaking by both athletes. As the dejected Shapovalov exited Centre Court amidst a loud ovation, he wept, prompting Djokovic to later console him in the locker room.

The Gentlemen’s Final culminated the first week of tennis with a full-capacity crowd since the pre-pandemic 2020 Australian Open. Because Wimbledon was cancelled last year, it also came 728 days after Djokovic’s last title here in 2019 when he escaped two championship points to outlast Federer in the unforgettable, triple tiebreaker, marathon final.

Although Berrettini had won only four Wimbledon matches in his entire career, he boasted a perfect 11-0 record on grass this summer. Djokovic was red-hot, too, taking 18 straight sets after dropping the first one in his Wimbledon opener.

After falling behind 5-2, the handsome Italian sprinted and hit a forehand winner to break serve for 5-4. Berrettini then played the tiebreaker of his life, starting at 3-all, with two forehand winners and finishing with an ace to steal the 7-6 opening set.

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The ultimate adjuster

Djokovic remained calm and reset his game. He intensified the attack on his foe’s vulnerable backhand with more power and placement plus the occasional drop shot to keep Berrettini off-balance, served wide in the deuce court to elicit errors, and often came to net where he won 71 percent of the points. “Djokovic is the greatest chess player we’ve ever seen,” said ESPN analyst Patrick McEnroe. “He’s the ultimate adjuster.”

The tactics worked beautifully. Djokovic raced to a 4-0 lead and took the second set, 6-4. Serving at 3-2 in the third set, he saved two break points — Berrettini missed makeable passing shots — and belted a 118-mph ace for 4-2. When his supporters chanted “Nole, Nole, Nole,” he cupped his ear to appeal for even more applause. Djokovic seized the third set, 6-4.

Afterwards, the most clear-eyed assessment of the turnaround and Djokovic’s best attributes came from Berrettini: “I think first of all, obviously the way he neutralised my weapons, my serve and my forehand. The way he covers the court. It’s something that I never experienced.” Two key match stats confirmed that conviction — Berrettini’s low 38 percent of second-serve points won and Djokovic’s low 21 unforced errors.

As Berrettini’s resistance weakened in the seventh game of the fourth set, his nervous father covered his eyes. Cries of “Ma-tte-o, Ma-tte-o!” reverberated, as the mostly pro-Berrettini crowd hoped to buoy their hero. Alas, he double-faulted on break point and fell behind 4-3. Two games later, the Italian valiantly saved two championship points with a drop volley winner and a 101-mph forehand winner. But on the third championship point, he tamely netted a slice backhand.

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Elated, Djokovic began his familiar victory rituals. He collapsed on the turf and lay on his back. Then, after hugging Berrettini at the net, he raised his arms, squatted to munch some grass, before climbing into the stands where he embraced his ecstatic team. The extroverted Serb took a selfie with a gobsmacked boy before resuming his celebration by tapping his heart and performing his signature lifting gesture to the still-cheering spectators. When he spotted an adorable little girl holding a Djokovic sign, he jogged over and gave her his racket.

In his victory speech, Djokovic shared a moving recollection. “Winning Wimbledon was always the biggest dream for me when I was a kid. A seven-year-old boy in Serbia constructing a Wimbledon trophy with improvised materials and standing here with a sixth real trophy is incredible. It is amazing.”

What’s equally amazing is that this 34-year-old man believes his best tennis is yet to come. “I am a better player in all areas,” Djokovic said. “The journey that I’ve been through has been very rewarding for every segment of my game and also my mental strength, the experience, understanding of how to cope with the pressure in the big moments, how to be a clutch player when it matters the most. Age is just a number. I don’t feel that I’m old or anything like that. I feel like I’m probably the most complete that I’ve been as a player right now in my entire career.”

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Barty becomes the Wimbledon and people’s champion

Ever since 19th-century superstar Charlotte “Lottie” Dod defied Victorian conventions and exhorted her sisters, “Ladies should learn to run, and run their hardest, too, not merely stride,” women tennis champions have changed the game and often society. Suzanne Lenglen, a charismatic, graceful French superstar during the 1920s “Golden Age of Sports,” symbolised the new postwar freedom by wearing lipstick, a skirt that scandalously exposed her thighs, a low-cut blouse and her famous brightly coloured bandeau.

In the 1930s, Alice Marble “played like a man,” serving and volleying with abandon. Marble wrote an editorial that helped Althea Gibson, a Black from Harlem, break the colour barrier in tennis in 1950. Billie Jean King, another bold serve-volleyer from California, broke barriers by becoming the first female athlete to come out as a lesbian. King founded the Women’s Tennis Association in 1973, and, as an activist, also battled sexism, homophobia and racism. Martina Navratilova, who defected from communist Czechoslovakia to the US in 1975, campaigned for animal rights, environmentalism and human rights. This century, Venus and Serena Williams, fierce competitors, exceptional athletes and political activists became the most decorated siblings in sports history, with Serena creating plenty of controversy along the way. Recently, Naomi Osaka, a shy Japanese-Haitian, carried on this pioneering legacy by standing up for the Black Lives Matter movement and speaking out about the mental health issues that caused her to withdraw from the French Open in June.

Similarly, Ashleigh Barty, the new Wimbledon champion, promises to make her political mark but with a low-key activist style. A quintessential Australian, she competes tenaciously but sportingly. Win or lose, she exudes a rare combination of humility and equanimity. Like many of the tennis giants before her, Barty champions a human rights cause, in her case the Indigenous people in her homeland who grievously suffered in the past. In 2018, Tennis Australia appointed her National Indigenous Tennis Ambassador to get more Indigenous youth into tennis.

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After Barty edged Karolina Pliskova 6-3, 6-7 (4), 6-3 in the Wimbledon final, she talked about how “the stars aligned.” Her triumph came on the 50th anniversary of Evonne Goolagong’s — her friend, mentor and inspiration — first Wimbledon crown. Barty is of Ngarigo ancestry, while Goolagong is a Wiradjuri woman, and Wimbledon’s second week serendipitously coincided with Naidoc Week, a celebration of the history, culture and achievements of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples in Australia.

Fate was also kind to Barty in another way. A painful hip injury forced her to withdraw from the French Open, and her team didn’t tell her this injury normally requires a two-month recovery. “Being able to play here at Wimbledon was nothing short of a miracle,” Barty said.

Tribute to Goolagong

Even though the injury prevented her from playing any grass-court events before Wimbledon and she had a disappointing 5-4 career record there, Barty was still the consensus favourite. She had ranked No. 1 since winning the 2019 French Open, had won three tournaments this season and has a game ideal for grass. Like Goolagong, she boasts all the shots and delivers them with tactical cleverness along with the nonchalance of a supremely natural athlete. In a tribute to Goolagong, Barty wore her tank top and skort version of the Aussie icon’s signature scallop-hemmed dress throughout the fortnight.

In the opening round, Barty dropped a set to former world No. 6 Carla Suarez Navarro, whose feel-good story touched fellow players and fans. The 32-year-old Spaniard, who will retire at the end of the season, was playing her last Wimbledon after recovering from Hodgkin lymphoma. Against Barbora Krejcikova, the shock French Open champion, Barty trailed 2-4 before prevailing 7-5, 6-3 thanks to 26 winners in a fourth-rounder.

Ashleigh Barty, the new Wimbledon champion, promises to make her political mark but with a low-key activist style. A quintessential Australian, she competes tenaciously but sportingly. Win or lose, she exudes a rare combination of humility and equanimity.   –  Getty Images

 

Barty’s next test came against suddenly resurgent Angelique Kerber in the semis. The 33-year-old German hadn’t won a tournament since upsetting Serena in the 2018 Wimbledon final for her third major title, and she contemplated retirement. But now she’d won 10 straight matches, beating rising star Coco Gauff 6-4, 6-4 and Australian Open semifinalist Karolina Muchova 6-2, 6-3, and crowed, “I know how to play on a grass court.”

Not well enough, evidently, to handle Barty’s unique all-court game. The Australian leads the tour in aces despite her 5’5” stature, and her pinpoint first serve placement elicited returns to her aggressive forehand 75 percent of the time. Her underspin-sidespin backhand produced unpredictable bounces and also set up her forehand.

Barty capitalised on 17 winners to grab the first set 6-3 against a nervous Kerber. When Kerber served for the second set at 5-4, Barty displayed her superb athleticism by smashing a deep lob for a winner on the first point and a forehand winner off a Kerber overhead on break point. When Barty seized the tiebreaker 7-3 for a 6-3, 7-6 triumph, she became the first Aussie woman to reach the Wimbledon final since Goolagong, who won it, in 1980.

Unusually emotional, Barty said, “I’ve had an incredible journey with ups and downs. I wouldn’t change any of it.”

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The culmination of her Wimbledon journey would pit her against Karolina Pliskova. The 29-year-old Czech had the dubious distinction of being the best active player never to win a Grand Slam title. Pliskova lost a three-set final to Kerber at the 2016 US Open and briefly ranked No. 1 in 2017. Not known as a fighter, she was shut out 6-0, 6-0 by Iga Swiatek in the 2021 Rome final, and didn’t seem to care. A couple of hours after the match, she put photos of herself shopping on social media.

In a rip-roaring semifinal, the stoical Pliskova faced the intense Aryna Sabalenka, who cares so much that she screams with every shot. Slightly embarrassed by her decibel level, Sabalenka quipped, “I want spectators to enjoy my game and not put in their earplugs.”

No. 2-seed Sabalenka’s first-strike game features ground strokes as hard as her sturdy, 5’11” physique can belt them. Winners and errors abound. “Every shot is big and wild,” rightly said Tennis Channel analyst Lindsay Davenport. “If she could just learn to keep her body calm.” Controlling her emotions would also do wonders for the hyper Belarusian who looks ecstatic or dejected after every point.

Sabalenka works with a psychologist to try to stay calm under pressure. Against Pliskova, it paid off in the first set when she somehow escaped eight break points, often hitting one of her 19 winners, to pull it out 7-5. But the Czech gradually became more consistent and confident and took the second set 6-4 and secured the only service break she needed in the first game of the deciding set.

Pliskova’s fittingly clinched her 5-7, 6-4, 6-4 victory with an ace on match point. Sabalenka won their serving contest, though, 18-14, and their combined 32 aces set a Wimbledon women’s record. “Power tennis is alive and well,” said Tennis Channel analyst Paul Annacone. “It was fun seeing old-school, grass-court tennis.”

The final would prove even more entertaining because of the contrasting styles. The upbeat Barty said, “I love the challenge of playing other great players on grass.” With that positivity, she hit six winners on the first eight points and seized the first 14 points.

This disastrous start gave Pliskova flashbacks of the Italian Open final. “I thought, ‘No, this is not possible, this cannot happen again.’”

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This time, the 6’1” Czech regrouped after she double faulted twice to lose her serve at love and fall behind 2-1 in the second set. Serving at 5-5, 40-love — game point — Pliskova failed to bend down and netted a makeable low volley. Navratilova and King, both outstanding volleyers in their heydays, raised their arms in dismay in the Royal Box. Pliskova lost her serve, but broke back to force a tiebreaker. Barty caved under the pressure, hitting timid ground strokes and double-faulting on set point as Pliskova took the breaker 7-4.

Pliskova had the momentum, but Barty had a terrific 13-2 record in three setters this year as well as far more athleticism and versatility. Pliskova sealed her fate when she muffed an easy forehand volley putaway to lose her serve and fall behind 2-0 in the deciding set. Serving for the championship at 5-3, Barty fought off a break point, smacked a 106 mph ace and watched Pliskova net an unforced backhand error.

After the riveting 6-3, 6-7, 6-3 victory, Barty covered her eyes with her hands and wept. She clambered into the stands where she hugged her boyfriend Garry Kissick, coach Craig Tyzzer and her trainer and physio. As Davenport noted, “More than any other player, Barty considers this a team sport.”

The plural pronouns “we” and “they” Barty often uses attest to that. Afterwards, she said, “It’s nice to be able to share some of these awesome moments with those that put so much time and energy into my career and allow me, encourage me, help me kind of work and figure out a plan and a way that they try and achieve our dreams.”

In the quote of the tournament, the humble Barty said, “I hope I made Evonne proud.”

Yes, you did, Ash! Not to mention your aboriginal heritage, all of Australia, and our sport.



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