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The past couple of years were tough, but the real Novak Djokovic is back. (Getty Images)

Steve Flink: Order Is Restored at Wimbledon—Djokovic Rules Centre Court Once Again

LONDON— There is no higher honor for a tennis player than winning Wimbledon. It is the sport’s preeminent tournament, the Kentucky Derby of our game, and a grass-court festival played out across an incomparable fortnight when observers from every spectrum of life seem to be paying attention. “The Championships” are a singular happening, and most of the leading competitors place peaking for this event at the very top of their priority list.

That is clearly the case for the resurgent and ever charismatic Novak Djokovic. Today he took the title that means the most to him for the fourth time, securing a 13th major title in the process, winning his first tournament of 2018 as well. Djokovic cut down big Kevin Anderson 6-2, 6-2, 7-6 (3) with a supremely disciplined performance. Over the course of the three sets, Djokovic did not lose his serve, realizing that feat for the first time in his five final-round Centre Court appearances. He blitzed through the first two sets regally while a deeply fatigued and jittery Anderson had absolutely no spring in his step and not much opposition to offer, but the 32-year-old found life in his legs and a livelier arm during the third set. At last he made a match of it, although his gallant effort went unrewarded because Djokovic obstinately held his ground and refused to concede a set he seemed almost certain to lose.

Anderson, of course, had come through an arduous path from the round of 16 on, holding back the enigmatic Gael Monfils in a four-set, three-hour and 29-minute skirmish. He then pulled out a pair of harrowing five set matches to claim his place in the final, ousting eight-time and defending champion Roger Federer from two sets to love and match point down in the quarterfinals—taking that captivating contest 13-11 in the fifth set after four hours and 14 minutes. He then confronted John Isner in the penultimate round, prevailing 26-24 in the fifth set of a clash that lasted six hours and 36 minutes.

So this fellow had been through the mill. In those three matches combined, he was on court for 14 hours and 19 minutes. Some skeptics and even many of his most ardent admirers wondered if the 6’8” powerhouse might be so spent for the final that he would not even be fit enough to do more than go through the motions.

But Anderson, despite his inauspicious start— regardless of how beaten up he must have felt, no matter what kind of negativity was inevitably invading his mind—summoned immense willpower near the end and looked like an entirely different player in the third set than the exhausted individual who was crushed over the first two sets by both the excellent returning and the deadly accurate serving of the man who stood on the other side of the net.

Here is how it all unfolded. Anderson was serving at 30-40 in the opening game when he double faulted at 116 M.P.H. into the net. For a big server who relies so heavily on his delivery to carry him through matches and put himself in the driver’s seat, a self-inflicted wound like that was devastating. Djokovic realized at once that Anderson was severely limited moving side to side, nervous and unable to serve regularly with the combination of location and speed that he normally can.

The Serbian held easily at 15 for 2-0 with purposeful play from the baseline and a cluster of mistakes from his adversary. Anderson managed a love hold in the third game when he found his mark with three out of four first serves. Djokovic was undismayed. He held at 15 for 3-1 after taking the first three points with precise and unanswerable serves.

Djokovic wanted an insurance break to be sure of sealing the set, and he got it. With Anderson serving at 1-3, Djokovic went to 15-40 with a cagey low backhand slice drawing an error from an opponent who was struggling mightily to get down properly for shots like that. Djokovic achieved his break at 15 with a low backhand pass coaxing an error on the volley from a dazed Anderson.

For all practical purposes, the first set was over. In a love hold for 5-1, Djokovic released three more first serves that Anderson could not read well or get back into play. After Anderson held for 2-5 with a 135-M.P.H. ace down the T, Djokovic closed out the set unhesitatingly, moving to 30-15 with a body serve to the backhand eliciting a netted return, going to 40-15 when another biting slice backhand drew an errant shot from Anderson, and holding at 15 when Anderson misfired flagrantly off the forehand.

The set had gone to Djokovic in 29 minutes, 6-2, and he soon broke at 15 to open the second set favorably. A crosscourt backhand from the Serbian clipped the baseline and left Anderson compromised. The South African challenged the call but it did not go his way. The free points kept flowing for Djokovic as he held at 15 for 2-0 after starting that game with a double fault. Nothing was working for Anderson. He had a 40-0 lead in the third game, but was pushed to two deuces before holding on.

Djokovic released two aces on his way to 3-1, dropping only one point in that convincing hold. And now the second set was becoming strikingly reminiscent of the first. Serving in the fifth game, Anderson was pressured into a backhand down-the-line error for 15-30, double faulted to make it 15-40, and then erred off the forehand as Djokovic returned intelligently down the middle.

It was 4-1 for Djokovic, who led by a set and two breaks. He moved in front 40-15 in the sixth game before Anderson found his range with a couple of returns. After two deuces, Djokovic advanced to 5-1 with stern authority and deep concentration. Serving for the set at 5-2, Djokovic faced his first break point as Anderson went more freely for his shots and read the Djokovic first serve much better. But the Serbian erased that break point when Anderson missed a sliced backhand. Djokovic surged to two sets to love with a backhand down-the-line winner and another beautifully placed first serve that Anderson could not handle on the backhand return.

In less than an hour-and-a-half, Djokovic led two sets to love, and it was hard to imagine that much was going to change in the third set.

Yet that was not the case. In fact, quite a lot changed. Anderson was reinvigorated, moving with some alacrity, finding the corners with his big first serve, and even sparring surprisingly with Djokovic from the backcourt. Perhaps Djokovic lost some of his swagger and fell into more of a defensive mode at times while slugging away in other instances without resorting to the backhand slice. Anderson found a rhythm from the baseline and in the third set he was a revitalized competitor who no longer looked fatigued or frozen of foot.

Across the first six games of the third set, both men were holding serve comfortably. In that span, Djokovic took all 12 points on his serve while Anderson won 12-of-16 points. But it was apparent that Djokovic knew that Anderson was seriously contending to capture that set and work his way back into the match. After the South African held at 15 for 4-3 with an ace sent out at 131 M.P.H. down the T, he went full force after a break that would have allowed him to serve for the set.

In the eighth game, Djokovic was break point down but he sedulously protected himself there, placing his first serve in at 119 M.P.H. to the backhand, setting up an inside-out forehand, forcing a harried Anderson to miss a backhand on the run. Djokovic held on for 4-4, but Anderson maintained his improved serving rhythm, acing Djokovic twice on his way to a hold at 15 for 5-4. Djokovic clearly did not want to play a fourth set, though.

He had, after all, endured a two-day, five-hour and 15-minute confrontation against Rafael Nadal, winning that classic duel 10-8 in the fifth set. The collision with Nadal had commenced on Friday evening under the retractable roof and had finished on Saturday afternoon. That left the 31-year-old in a somewhat compromised physical state as well, and the last thing he needed was to deal with a revived Anderson in a fourth or potential fifth set.

Yet a fourth set was a distinct possibility. Serving to stay in the set at 4-5, Djokovic gambled twice on big second serves and double faulted both times, falling behind 30-40. He saved that set point with a drop-shot winner from close range after one of his higher trajectory forehands had the crowd gasping because they mistakenly thought his shot was going out. A third double fault put Djokovic set point down for the second time, but this one he saved confidently, going 119 M.P.H. down the T with a first serve to set up an immaculate crosscourt forehand. Anderson, on the run, could not come close to answering that shot.

Now Anderson missed an easy forehand down the line wide with a nice opening, and a resolute Djokovic held on for 5-5 with a well struck first serve down the T at 110 M.P.H. that coaxed a return error from Anderson. The big man opened the eleventh game with an ace at 138 M.P.H. down the T and held at love, and once more he came exceedingly close to salvaging the set. Djokovic was down 15-40 in the twelfth game but an impeccable first serve in the deuce court to the forehand drew a return error. Then Djokovic explored the ad court T-serve again, got the short return he wanted, and drove a forehand majestically down the line for a winner.

Djokovic had saved four points altogether, but soon he faced a fifth. He wisely stayed with a winning strategy, sending a first serve down the T at 119 M.P.H. to provoke a forehand return error from Anderson. Eventually, on his second game point, Djokovic aced Anderson at 120 M.P.H. down the T to make it to 6-6.

It was time for a tiebreaker, and a good number of seasoned observers might have believed that Anderson now had the upper hand and he would therefore win in this sequence and extend the match. They were wrong. Fundamentally wrong. Djokovic had survived on those precarious moments leading up to this sequence and now he took control again. A forehand passing shot down-the-line winner enabled Djokovic to open up a 3-1 lead and he never looked back. A low backhand passing shot crosscourt was too much for Djokovic to handle, and that gave him a double mini-break for 4-1.

He made it 5-1 with another magnificent T-serve, dropped the next point, but moved ahead 6-2 with a backhand down the line drawing a forehand error from Anderson. Although Anderson saved one match point on his serve, Djokovic came through on the second as one last Anderson return found the net. Victory came deservedly to Djokovic 6-2, 6-2, 7-6 (3). He now stands only one major title away from a tie with his boyhood idol Pete Sampras, who captured 14 across his storied career.

When it was over, Djokovic proudly spoke about his son, and how this triumph was particularly gratifying because his boy was here to see it.

He explained, “It was one of, if not, the biggest motivations I’ve had for Wimbledon this year. I was visualizing, imagining the moment of him coming to the stands, cherishing the moment with my wife and me and everyone. It’s hard to describe. I mean, I’ve never had him in the box watching the tennis match. I was hoping that Wimbledon can be that tournament because he’s big enough now I think to stay quiet for 30 minutes or so. There are special rules. He’s under five and you’re not allowed if you’re under five to be present. He [my son] was not there until the moment I was walking to do an interview. He walked in. So that was just a moment I will carry inside of my heart forever.”

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