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Novak Djokovic’s 13th slam title was his most unexpected

Six weeks ago, he thought he might skip grass court season. On Sunday, he won Wimbledon for a fourth time.

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Day Thirteen: The Championships - Wimbledon 2018
Novak Djokovic
Photo by Matthew Stockman/Getty Images

From the macro, Wikipedia-based view, there was nothing surprising about the way the 2018 Wimbledon final played out. Novak Djokovic won his fourth All-England crown in straight sets, making it 50 of the last 61 slams won by either Djokovic (13), Rafael Nadal (17), or Roger Federer (20).

One of this trio have won each of the last seven and 11 of the last 13. They combined to win 18 in a row at one point and 11 in a row at another. Add in a couple of elite stretches from Andy Murray (a three-time slam champ) and Stan Wawrinka (ditto), and you’ve got the story of men’s tennis for basically the last 15 years.

That makes Djokovic’s run almost seem inevitable. It was anything but.

Both Federer and Nadal had to deal with lengthy droughts at some point. They had to deal with both injury and Djokovic’s star turn; Federer went nearly five years — between 2012 Wimbledon and the 2017 Australian Open — between titles, while Nadal battled a streak of 10 slams without even a semifinal appearance.

They both found their groove at the beginning of 2017 and have stayed healthy with a combination of selective scheduling, adjustments to their respective games, and, perhaps, some luck.

Djokovic, however, seemingly had to battle both injury and his own brain.

Djokovic has never had Federer’s offensive game or Nadal’s torque.

But he reached the sport’s pinnacle by playing even better defense than Nadal and getting both his mind and body in superhuman shape. He went gluten-free. He spent time in a CVAC pod. He became the perfect physical specimen for the sport of tennis.

The Djokovic era was perhaps defined by his six-hour (okay, five-hour and 53-minute) win over Nadal in the 2012 Aussie Open final. He fell a set behind early on and trailed 4-2 in the fifth but won five of the last six games to take the trophy. Every point seemed to last two minutes. Neither gave an inch. But Djokovic outlasted the un-outlastable. It was at the time his seventh straight win over Nadal; after losing 14 of his first 18 matches against Nadal, he won 22 of 31.

In the 2016 French Open, Djokovic reached his summit: the career grand slam. He had lost in the finals in 2012 and 2014 (each in four sets to Nadal), and in 2015 he finally got through Nadal only to lose in the finals to Wawrinka. But after dropping only one set on the way to the finals, he spotted Murray a set and then won the next three.

2016 French Open - Day Fifteen Photo by Dennis Grombkowski/Getty Images

Djokovic held all four slam titles at the same time — the Nole Slam — and in Paris, he had slain his final personal dragon. And he immediately lost his form.

He lost in the third round at Wimbledon, then fell to Juan Martin del Potro in the first round of the Olympics in August. He made it to the U.S. Open finals with help (three different opponents had to withdraw/retire), and he dropped a set in two of his three completed wins before falling again to Wawrinka. He lost in the second round of the 2017 Aussie Open and in the quarterfinals of the French. He changed coaches twice in about a year.

With his career goals complete, Djokovic had seen his mental edge slip. And then his body rebelled.

Long nagged by an elbow issue, he had to retire in the Wimbledon quarterfinals against Thomas Berdych. He missed the rest of the season, and after reaching the fourth round in Australia in January, he had another elbow surgery.

By mid-May 2018, he had played in only 11 ATP matches, and he had lost six of them. But he made the Rome semifinals and gave Nadal a scare before succumbing. And he dropped only one set in advancing to the French Open quarterfinals before an upset loss to Marco Cecchniato. His game was coming around, but the confidence was not yet there. In his post-match press conference, he hinted that he wasn’t completely sure he would play the grass court season.

He ended up playing. Good call.

He reached the finals in the Fever-Tree Championships in London before falling in three long sets to 2017 Wimbledon finalist Marin Cilic. And after taking the week off before Wimbledon, he found his groove.

Perhaps the final step of the Re-Djokovication came in the third round last week, when he faced the No. 21 seed, Britain’s own Kyle Edmund. Djokovic has always had a little bit of movie villain in him, at times seeming to raise his game when the crowd turns against him. Edmund had beaten him in Madrid a couple of months earlier, and he took the first set in their Wimbledon matchup. But from there, Nole laid waste to the 23-year old, sweeping the next three sets 6-3, 6-2, 6-4. He split the first two sets against Kei Nishikori in the quarterfinals, then won the last two, 6-2, 6-2. His finishing kick, his ability to mentally break his opponent, seemed to be returning. And in a two-day semifinal against his old rival Rafa, he completed his comeback.

Tennis: Wimbledon Susan Mullane-USA TODAY Sports

Nadal’s game forces Djokovic to stay on the offensive. Whereas Djokovic-Murray matches can become cautious and almost too defensive, you have to remove your regulator against Nadal and stay on your front foot.

With his backhand firmly under control — it has been the last stroke to get in order and the first to leave him (overheads aside) — he matched Nadal with 73 winners and perhaps served better than ever, dishing up 23 aces. He fended off five break points in the final set before converting one of his own, vanquishing his rival, 6-4, 3-6, 7-6, 3-6, 10-8.

The final felt like a formality. His opponent, Kevin Anderson, had played the equivalent of about 15 sets in his previous two matches — he beat Federer 13-11 in the fifth set in the quarters, then survived John Isner 26-24 in the fifth in the semis. It took the South African two 6-2 sets just to find his footing, and Djokovic put the title away in a third-set tiebreaker.

His reaction was revealing; it was far more stunned than joyous. He wasn’t sure if he had another run in him either.

There were legitimate reasons to wonder if Djokovic could ever find his fifth gear again. Generating his level of mental and physical synchonization and sustaining it for so many years was almost impossible; finding it again seemed like too much to ask.

We’ll see what happens from here, if his form continues to round further into “killing machine” shape, or if this is the peak of this part of his career arc. But men’s tennis has been struggling with a void of new leadership.

While Nadal and Federer indeed looked impressive in racking up six straight late-career slams between them, it has been noticeable that the generation below them (the NIshikoris and Milos Raonics of the world) has failed to take the final step in challenging them. The generation beneath them — Alexander Zverev, Dominic Thiem, and company — could be ready soon but isn’t quite there yet. With Djokovic and Murray both struggling with injuries, there haven’t been enough challenges.

Djokovic is 31 himself and doesn’t solve those problems. But we got a reminder this fortnight that a Big Three for men’s tennis is more fun than a Big Two.

Day Thirteen: The Championships - Wimbledon 2018
Novak Djokovic
Photo by Julian Finney/Getty Images