Wimbledon 2021: Mighty Djokovic joins ’20 Club’ for a step closer to Grand Slam

World No1 beats bold Berrettini in thriller for 20th Major; just needs US Open to join Laver in tennis history

Novak Djokovic
Novak Djokovic (Photo: AELTC / David Gray)

As surely as night followed day, world No1 Novak Djokovic had worked his way through six opponents to reach his 30th Major final, and with a run of 20 match-wins on the grass of Wimbledon’s famous lawns.

He had won seven of the last 11 Majors he had played, including both the French and Australian Open this year to become the only one of the ‘big three’ to win two career Grand Slams. He now had in his sights the ultimate accolade, the calendar Grand Slam, something only Rod Laver had achieved in the Open era way back in 1969.

He had already this year overtaken Roger Federer in what had seemed, not long ago, an insurmountable tally of weeks at No1, and those weeks continued to pile up, even if he should lose this Wimbledon final.

But there were few who expected Djokovic would lost, either before the draw was made or in the hours before the final. And victory would draw him level with both Federer and Rafael Nadal on a record 20 Majors.

There were many onlookers able to recall when the tally of Pete Sampras—his 14th Major was won in 2002—looked just as insurmountable, only for Federer to win 15 Majors within seven years. And by 2020, the Swiss and Nadal had both reached 20. Move a year on, and Djokovic—almost six year’s Federer’s junior—was on the cusp of matching them.

Along the way, even during a truncated and unpredictable pandemic-stricken 2020, Djokovic had added significantly to his resume, achieving a second ‘golden Masters’ with his win in Cincinnati: no-one else had even completed one set of Masters.

Also along the way he had also beaten the man he now faced in the Wimbledon final: Djokovic beat Matteo Berrettini just a few weeks ago in the quarters of the French Open.

So what could the latest challenger for the Wimbledon title bring to the party? After all, only Andy Murray had broken the triumvirate’s hold over this title since 2002.

The dashing 25-year-old Berrettini had certainly made an impression this summer on London’s grass, coming to Wimbledon with the Queen’s title, and then carving his way through his half with some big-time tennis: big serve, big forehand, big personality.

Indeed when the draw was made more than a fortnight ago, there were certainly a good few who anticipated a strong challenge from the No7 seed, for the athletic Italian had a complete enough set of weapons to have shown his mettle at the Majors on other surfaces: semis at the US Open, and quarters at the French.

He had qualified for his first ATP Finals in 2019—and, incidentally, won the grass title in Stuttgart that year—and reached his first Masters final this spring in Madrid, as well as the final of the ATP Cup.

But a look at his statistics on Wimbledon’s grass this fortnight told their own story: top of the leader board with 101 aces, a fastest serve of 139mph, 254 winners, 98 points won at the net. But the biggest question was whether the 6ft 5ins Italian could play as well in defence as in attack against the all-court coverage, stamina, and chess-like tactical demands of Djokovic.

And whether the emotional cauldron of a first Major final, and knowing that he would be the first ever Italian champion at Wimbledon, would undermine his focus.

It was not the most promising start from either man, with nerves playing their part for several games. Djokovic opened with a double fault, hit a forehand wide, double faulted again, but he fought off break point and two deuces as Berrettini failed to capitalize.

Indeed the Italian’s serving, such a pivotal area of his game, was not helping him out, and he was the first one to be broken. With the bit between his teeth, Djokovic now settled, held to love for a 4-1 lead.

But with his back to the wall, 2-5 down, Berrettini began to find more intensity, unleashed a couple of his huge forehands to resist, time and again, the Djokovic pressure of set point and then eight deuces, a marathon 12 or so minutes that would surely have seen Djokovic relax and take control had he won the set then and there.

Berrettini was still only getting around 55 percent of his first serves in, but he was willing to go after his second and third shots, aiming for the lines and earning huge cheers from the crowd. He not only held, he went on to break, and another hold drew them all square 5-5.

What had begun as a tentative set was now boiling to a big climax, and Berrettini got the first strike. However, the two changed ends at 3-3, but back came the Italian with some uninhibited forehands to earn a key point against the serve, and he thumped down a 138mph ace to hold for the set, 7-6(4), after 70 minutes.

Berrettini had started the match with heavy strapping to his left thigh—his launch leg for that big serve—and perhaps that was behind his continuing sub-60 percent first-serve rate. Meanwhile, Djokovic was now zoned in, and broke the Italian on his way to a 2-0 lead.

Berrettini’s focus had dipped after the physical and mental effort of that first set, and he made a slew of errors to concede another break with a netted forehand. In contrast, Djokovic held to love in barely a minute, but serving at 2-5 down, Berrettini again made a surge, winning a remarkable exchange with a tweener lob, and Centre Court rose as one to applaud.

It fired up the Italian, who then broke, and even pulled back from 0-40 down with some massive serves, for 4-5. But Djokovic was the coolest man in the place, head down, spot-on serving, a love hold for the set, 6-4.

He then left court, bag over shoulder, for a complete change of clothes, and returned to change his shoes, too. There would be no hurrying this man. Berrettini was not diverted: four big serves, a love hold, to start the third set. But come the third game, the Djokovic defence-turned-attack went into overdrive with a sliding double-handed back-hand for break point, and he drew Berrettini into a long backhand exchange that the Italian was always going to lose: break.

The Italian had the chance to level again in the sixth game, but blew two chances of straightforward passes, and that was it, 4-2. Djokovic called on the crowd to support him as much as his opponent, but in truth the tenison merely galvanized his tennis: precious few errors, while forcing Berrettini to push the boundaries. The Serb served it out, 6-4.

The fourth set was neck-and-neck until the midway point, but Berrettini was a step slower, his leg apparently now niggling. It showed in a double fault, as Djokovic’s vicious returns did their worst for the break. Serving at 3-5 down Berrettini could not resist the huge pressure, two forehands went long, and Djokovic sealed the win at this third attempt, 6-3, after almost three and a half hours.

It had been a hotly contested match, belying the faltering early games, and Djokovic fell to the court in relief, before clambering to his team for emotional hugs.

Berrettini, with his familiar broad smile, gave credit to the champion:

“It is an unbelievable feeling, maybe too many feelings to handle, but Novak was also much better than me—he is a great champion… He is rewriting the history of this sport so deserves all the credit.”

He concluded, to huge cheers from a crowd that had taken the Italian to its heard:

“Hopefully it’s not my last one here… For me it’s not the end, it’s a beginning.”

Djokovic, of course, was asked to address equalling the 20 Majors of Federer and Nadal. He smiled:

“It means none of us three will stop. But tribute to Rafa and Roger, they are legends of our sport and the two most important players that I ever faced in my career. They showed me what I needed to do to get stronger, physically, mentally, tactically. They are the reason I am where I am today… Over the last 10 years it has been an incredible journey that is not stopping here.”

And what of that other ambition for 2021, the fourth in the set of Majors, the Calendar Slam that neither of those rivals has achieved? He paused, smiled, wording his reply carefully:

“I could definitely envisage that happening and I hope I will give it a shot.”

It would take a brave person indeed to suggest otherwise.

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