Novak Djokovic has been the perennial favorite at most big events for the majority of the past eleven years. With the (skyscraper-sized) exception of Nadal on clay, Djokovic’s best level is better than the field’s. His game makes it so difficult to bet against him — he has safety net after safety net; if you can hang with him in a rally he’ll beat you with his serve, if you have a better forehand he’ll constantly force you to hit it on the run, if you’re playing as well as him but aren’t physically fit, he’ll expose your lack of stamina. The Australian Open is Djokovic’s best event historically, but at the moment, it’s hard to find a tournament he has a better chance of winning than Wimbledon. He was the champion in 2018, 2019, and 2021, with COVID forcing the tournament out of 2020. His last loss at Wimbledon was an injury-influenced one in 2017, his last loss on Center Court was in 2013. With Roger Federer way past his best years and sidelined with injury (he had Djokovic pinned at double championship point in the 2019 final) and the young guns’ lack of experience on grass, Djokovic may be as big a favorite as he’s ever been.
And yet. Djokovic enters this year’s Wimbledon with more pressure on him than I can remember, for the simple reason that if he does not win the tournament, his entire year goes in the bin. (Due to his ongoing unvaccinated status, Djokovic won’t be able to play the U.S. Open unless the U.S. start to allow unvaccinated visitors to enter the country.) He couldn’t play the Australian Open this year for the same reason, and at Roland-Garros he lost to a resurgent Nadal. The result was that his momentum from a brilliant 2021 season was utterly snuffed out. After winning three majors last year, Djokovic had evened the major count with Nadal and Federer at 20, and looked certain to cruise past them this year, but 2022 has brought an unwelcome twist of fate for the Serb. Nadal picked up the first two majors, opening up a gap again. If Djokovic doesn’t win Wimbledon, he could begin 2023 trailing Rafa by two or more. He’s as resistant to Father Time as anyone, but he isn’t getting any younger, and Nadal is surging. Djokovic needs to close the gap now.
Djokovic has had stretches of pure dominance in the past, but he rarely avoids close matches. He’s never won a major title without dropping a set. He was five points away from losing to Nadal in the 2018 Wimbledon semifinals and was down double match point to Federer in the 2019 final. Last year’s title in London was more comfortable, but things looked dicey for a bit when Djokovic lost the first set to Matteo Berrettini in the final.
And there is reason to think this year’s tournament will be difficult. Djokovic lacks the base — he’s only played 21 matches this year — and the form he had in 2021. He may be the top seed, but he has no wind in his sails. The one tournament he has won this year, the Italian Open, feels next to meaningless since Djokovic failed to follow it up with a title at Roland-Garros. His loss to Nadal in Paris has cast doubt over his typically impeccable physicality; he lost steam at the end of the vital fourth set. A few days after the match, his coach Goran Ivanišević declared that Djokovic would be ready for Wimbledon, but that the loss had affected him badly. Djokovic’s self-confidence is usually unshakeable, but if there were a time for there to be doubts, it would be now.
That said, Djokovic has a rich history of performing well under pressure. In 2018, with his form flagging, he suffered a brutal four-set loss to Marco Cecchinato in the quarterfinals of Roland-Garros, despite having multiple set points to take the match to a fifth (sound familiar?). Despondent in press, Djokovic confessed that he wasn’t even sure he would play the grass season. But he did, and he won Wimbledon, beating the red-hot and then-world-number-one Nadal in an epic five-set semifinal. Last year at Wimbledon, he faced the pressure of never having won the Channel Double, but he came away with a relatively comfortable win. Many of the best feats of his career have been performed while walking a tightrope — those match point saves against Federer, the grueling matches he pulls out with the extra ounce of energy in his legs, the matches that could have gotten complicated if he had just missed a first serve here, a running forehand there. Djokovic is a master at navigating pressure.
The difference this year, I think, is that it feels like Djokovic has to navigate pressure. Usually, obstacles appear on his path to a title as he’s walking it — he’s off in an early-round match, or a seemingly innocuous opponent has a great day, or he has a late-round clash with a big rival. But this year the pressure is already etched into the tournament itself, which means every round is a potential pitfall. In the case of a loss, Djokovic can’t comfort himself with the knowledge that he’s done a lot this year already, because he hasn’t. He can’t look ahead to the U.S. Open as a site of redemption, because he won’t be able to play it. He might not be able to keep his deficit in the major race static, because Rafa could win Wimbledon, and his chances improve if Djokovic isn’t there to meet him in the final.
Think about it: what if Djokovic doesn’t win Wimbledon? He’ll be stuck on 20 major titles until 2023. He won’t be at the U.S. Open, barring a travel policy shift between now and late August. He might not even be at the Australian Open next year — you still have to be vaccinated to be guaranteed entry Down Under — and after that comes Roland-Garros, which has never been Djokovic’s tournament to win. What is he supposed to do in the meantime? He’s not going to qualify for the World Tour Finals at the rate he’s going. His ranking will continue to tank. Since he can’t get into the U.S., he won’t be able to play the Masters 1000s in the States, and even if he could, he wouldn’t be adding noticeably to his career. His lack of match practice in the first third of 2022 might have doomed him in some important matches — his lack of fitness was painfully obvious in Monte-Carlo and Belgrade, and he may not even have recovered all of his old zeal by Roland-Garros. Can he keep taking long breaks like that? I don’t think he can; not playing for a while kills a player’s familiarity with the rigors of competitive matches, and it takes a huge effort to get reacclimated. By the second spell off tour, Djokovic might already be reaching the point of diminishing returns.
The painful truth is that while Djokovic rarely has to win a title to cement his place at the top of men’s tennis, he needs to win this one. The potential consequences in the case of a loss are too great — it could be almost a year before he can play a major again, at which point his form could be damaged beyond repair, his motivation shot, or his deficit in the major race too large. I can’t read Djokovic’s thoughts, so maybe he isn’t worried about any of this. Hell, just recently he happily posted a video of trying to put together a trampoline with his coaches. Judging from his recent press conference, though, he knows how important this tournament is. If I had to guess, he must also know that his aura from last year has been diminished almost beyond recognition, which means he’s understandably desperate to get it back.
In Paris, despite Djokovic’s status as favorite at the time, his loss could be easily explained. We thought Nadal would be physically compromised, and he wasn’t, and he played a great match. Fine. Djokovic had lost to him in Paris seven times before. It is much more difficult to imagine a plausible scenario where Djokovic could fall (figuratively, not literally. Grass is slippery) at Wimbledon. This is his title to lose, and a loss could have catastrophic consequences. When he plays tennis, he usually denies his opponents of a comfort zone; if they have a weakness, he will target it until it not only cracks but shatters. He may now be the one realizing he has nowhere to hide.