Sunday afternoon was a straightening-of-the-tie sort of afternoon for Novak Djokovic. He shined his shoes and fixed his collar and did his hair and slipped on his jacket. He glanced one final time in the mirror and nodded a knowing nod, a reassuring signal to himself that things were OK again. And then without a backward glance, he turned and went to work.
And what work it was, for Nick Kyrgios with all of his serving and his ranting, could find nothing to jam the form-finding fine-tuning levels of tennis that smoked at times with the force of movement from the shoes of one of the very best to ever do it.
Of course, the usual talk of Djokovic’s greatness and guile followed this match but if there’s a stand out takeaway from this Wimbledon men’s final, it’s that the Serbian’s ability to mentally compartmentalise issues both on and off the court remains unmatched. He simply refuses to let the struggle get to him and instead wears it, fitting himself around it, manipulating his joints to remain capable of hitting a tennis ball so perfectly while simultaneously warding off demons that flap like bats around brains in moments of difficulty. He revels in all of this, these times of stress that threaten to consume and take his thoughts wandering away from him. Never has there been someone so capable in men’s tennis of remaining cold in the heat.
We saw this most obviously in the dropping of the first set, Kyrgios winning it with a skip and a jump to his chair. But the thing is, the Djokovic-first-set-loss is a trope now, wheeled out in major matches to tickle fans of his opponent and get them excited. They stand and they clap and they get their hopes up off the ground a little. It gets them talking and buzzing, murmuring to one another with tentative smiles, uncertain of whether this is some practical joke or not, about to be whipped out from underneath them.
But while it’s not a joke, it’s so often only temporary. For there are levels to playing Wimbledon finals that only the greats can reach but rarely do they snap their fingers and instantly appear up on them. No, it more often than not takes a little while, it takes some warming up, it takes a bit of a shove from themselves to get them going but when they do, when they do get going, they’re gone so fast that you could never ever really hope to keep hold. They’re gone and you’re left with only the vaguest of recollections of at one point being ahead.
Responding to setback with fightback is difficult because it requires a soberness of thought that only the top tier can manage. Watching Djokovic drop sets in big-time matches before digging some sort of form out through the gratings of his game is beautiful to watch because it’s art, in a way. All he requires is a little bit of a something and that’s when you feel it, the turning tides of a contest changed, and you see it play out, you see it happening again and his opponents know it too. They try different things, different shots, different rhythms to disrupt and stop but when these men and women of tennis intimidation let you know they’ve arrived, you better come up with something other than a surprise underarm serve or you’re finished.
You’re gone. You’re done. You’re finished.
Novak Djokovic’s early slip-ups have become more frequent in recent years. Perhaps it’s age. Or perhaps he just lets himself bleed a little to let us know that he’s human.
In any case, Sunday night was a straightening-of-the-tie sort of night for him. He shined his shoes and fixed his collar and did his hair and slipped on his jacket. He glanced one final time in the mirror and nodded a knowing nod, a reassuring signal to himself that things were OK again. And then without a backward glance, he walked away as a 21-time major winner and went to the Wimbledon Champion’s Ball.