Wimbledon 2013: Novak Djokovic left vulnerable by unexpected loss of nerve
World No 1’s regular appeals to the umpire and his second-set reverse showed uncharacteristic frailty
It hardly seemed earth-shattering news at the time, seven years ago, but what fretting and frustration could have been saved. The suggestion, that is, that the family of a promising teenage tennis player from Belgrade called Novak Djokovic were considering taking British nationality.
The young Djokovic, already a friend of Andy Murray, had recently played Davis Cup for Serbia & Montenegro - as the country was before splitting again - against Great Britain in Glasgow. He beat Greg Rusedski, Canadian-born and accented, who qualified as British through his Yorkshire mother.
For Djokovic to have followed him would have been a complicated process. Under International Tennis Federation regulations, a player a) must have lived in the country for 24 consecutive months; b) must have a valid passport for the country and c) cannot have represented another country in the previous 36 months.
Serbian reaction can be imagined, but implausible or not, it was confirmed within a month that Djokovic’s mother Dijana had held discussions with the Lawn Tennis Association about moving to Britain, where she felt his two younger brothers would also have progressed better as players.
So Britain could have had its Wimbledon champion two years earlier, when Djokovic defeated the holder Rafael Nadal in 2011, becoming world No 1, and Sunday’s event could have been a first all-British final since 1909.
Instead, London’s great sporting afternoon saw Serbia mourning, in contrast to the 2011 triumph, when an estimated 100,000 people turned out in Belgrade’s main square to welcome their champion home.
Home, of course, tends to be a moveable venue for many eastern European sports stars.
Djokovic was only 12 when he moved to the Niki Pilic tennis academy in Germany for four years, before turning professional; these days he plays out of Monte Carlo.
But with a strong commitment to playing in the Davis Cup for his country, he has remained a huge sporting idol there.
Whatever yesterday’s result, he was always going to remain on top of the rankings when the new ATP list comes out today. Murray, at No 2, is almost 3,000 points behind - the difference between, say, Roger Federer and Stanislas Wawrinka.
Clearly, there was no such difference between them on Sunday as Djokovic became slowly unrecognisable from the imperious figure who had breezed into the last four, at which point the greatest shock was that he nearly dropped a set to former finalist Tomas Berdych.
Until Sunday only Juan Martin del Potro, in that memorable semi-final on Friday, can be said to have pushed him to any degree.
That performance offered a minor concern for Murray, namely that Del Potro – with his huge serve and power play – can emerge as another contender for a place among the elite.
David Ferrer will be officially No 3 in Monday’s world rankings list, ahead of Nadal, Roger Federer and Berdych, but Del Potro could be the coming man.
Yet even the Argentine could expose no more than chinks in the Serbian armour. Murray blasted a hole in them, even if there was a sense of self-inflicted damage.
Statistically, the surprises were that Djokovic committed so many unforced errors and lost so many points on serve – starting with the first three of the match.
Tactically, what was unexpected was that he came to the net so often; emotionally, that nerves seemed to afflict him after 10 previous Grand Slam finals. Rarely one to confront officials, he was at the umpire’s chair on a regular basis in the second set, the one that left him with so much to do.
In the US Open final in September he had come back from two-down to level, but never beaten Murray from such a deficit. Murray has now taken the first set on each of their last six meetings. Recovering from two-love down was a different proposition this time though.
While nobody would ever question the Serb’s character and determination, to have tossed the second set away after leading it 4-1, losing the key service game to a double fault, was somehow just not the Novak we all know and love.
After all the emotion of the afternoon, the more considered view was that Murray will be fortunate to catch him on such a bad day again.
The Dunblane boy is cursed to live in interesting times for his sport. He has discovered this past fortnight that as one, and perhaps even two, of the other three brightest stars in the tennis hierachy are fading, so it would be premature to say the same of the third; the return smashed back past Murray at 15-40 on match point indicated as much in any language. The angled forehand across court in the same game underlined the theory.
At the finish, there was a genuine congratulatory embrace at the net from Djokovic for his old friend and rival, just as there had been when Murray took his first Grand Slam at Flushing Meadow.
Djokovic was admirably gracious in his on-court interview, saying “Congratulations, you absolutely deserve it”. The unspoken message, however, will have said “until next time”.
The bad news for Murray, if there could be such a thing on this day of days, is that his almost exact contemporary – there are only seven days between them – the man he called “one of the biggest fighters”, is not going away.
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