Wimbledon, England. While the French Open has long been the time of Rafael Nadal, Wimbledon has been the time of Novak Djokovic.
He is not yet the best grass player of this Darwinian era in men’s tennis. Absent from this year’s tournament, Roger Federer, 40, is still gaining recognition with his eight All England singles titles. But Djokovic, who posed with a homemade replica of the winner’s trophy in his youth, has certainly been the best in recent years thanks to his acrobatic, close-to-baseline style, and he is unquestionably the best grass player in the men’s field as Wimbledon’s main draw starts at Monday.
“It’s hard not to make Novak an outrageous favorite,” said Paul Annacone, one of Federer’s former coaches. “People talk about preparation and not playing games and stuff like that, but the thing is, when you played Wimbledon so many times and were there at the end so often, I don’t think it’s that big of a deal.”
Bjorn Borg, the stony-faced Swede, broke the mold of Wimbledon preparation by winning the tournament five times in a row from 1976 to 1980 without playing the official warm-up on grass. But the kit was repaired and reused for almost 30 years before Djokovic broke it again, perhaps forever.
He has won five of his six Wimbledon titles – 2011, 2014, 2015, 2019 and 2021 – without entering the tour setup tournament and will aim to do the same again this year as he attempts to win Wimbledon for the fourth time in a row. .
“Every day when you take a little rest and reboot helps,” Djokovic said. “But we are all different.
Speaking of grass courts, he added: “I didn’t have too many problems to quickly adapt to the surface. Over the years I have learned to play more effectively and on the surface. At the start of my career, I still struggled with movement and skating.”
Djokovic, who starts on center court on Monday against unseeded South Korean Kwon Sung-Woo, has not played an official match since his disconcerting, frankly cryptic loss to Nadal in the French Open quarter-finals. Djokovic seemed to weather the storm of Nadal’s thunderous start, but he failed to maintain his momentum and later lost the lead in the fourth and final set.
He spent some time with his wife Elena and two young children before coming to London to play – and play very well – at last week’s showcase grass event at the Hurlingham Club.
Nadal followed the same pattern, chasing the clock to recover from radiofrequency ablation, which weakens nerves with the help of radio waves, to treat a left leg injury ahead of a game – not entirely convincing – at Hurlingham. Unlike his main rival Djokovic, Nadal has never won Wimbledon without an official grass court preliminary. Two of his titles, in 2008 and 2010, he won after performances at the Royal Club, and, unlike Djokovic, Nadal has not played at Wimbledon since 2019.
The tournament was canceled in 2020 due to the pandemic, and last year Nadal missed it with a chronic foot problem that plagued him throughout his intermittently great 2022 campaign. He won the first two Grand Slams, the Australian Open in January and then the French Open this month, despite having to take painkillers to numb his left leg before all seven rounds in Paris.
But he said on Saturday that the RF therapy had eased his daily pain and given him the freedom to aggressively push off with his left foot, and there certainly was a springiness and perseverance in his gait as he practiced over the weekend at the All England Club.
“First, I can walk normally most days, almost every single day,” he said. “This is the main question for me. When I wake up, I don’t have the pain I’ve had for the past year and a half, so I’m quite happy about that.”
Beware the world, even though Nadal has moved mountains in 2022, he will still have a hard time climbing to the level of Djokovic on grass.
They can only meet in the final as the top two seeds in the tournament, with first-place Daniil Medvedev and second-place Alexander Zverev absent. Russian Medvedev is among the players who were not allowed to compete in Wimbledon this year because of the war in Ukraine. Zverev, a German, tore ligaments in his right ankle in the semi-final loss to Nadal at the French Open on June 3.
But there are still clear threats with a big innings rematch between Djokovic and Nadal, which will be a record 10th Open Era men’s Grand Slam final bout.
Hubert Gurkacz, the amiable Pole who upset Federer in the quarter-finals last year, is a grass court magician who roughly edged out Medvedev this month to win the title in Halle, Germany. He’s in Djokovic’s half at Wimbledon. Matteo Berrettini, the strong Italian who lost to Djokovic in last year’s Wimbledon final and just won the grass setting tournaments in Stuttgart, Germany and at the Royal Club, is in Nadal’s half.
But Nadal, who faces unseeded Argentina’s Francisco Cerundolo in the first round on Tuesday, could get a big early test if he faces USA’s Sam Querrey in the second round.
Querry’s rankings have dropped but he is still dangerous on grass and is the latest man to beat Djokovic in a completed match at Wimbledon, upsetting him in the third round in 2016 when Djokovic started a tailspin that would last nearly two years.
Djokovic is going through another tough phase, partly his own fault as, unlike any other top tennis player, he refuses to get his Covid-19 shot. This led to his deportation from Australia in January ahead of the Australian Open and could prevent him from competing in the US Open later this year unless the United States lifts the travel ban on unvaccinated foreigners.
“Of course I know about it,” Djokovic said. “It’s an extra motivation to do well here. I hope I will have a very good tournament, as it was in the last three tournaments. Then I just have to wait and see. I would love to go to the States, but today it is impossible.
In 2022, he played just 21 matches: fourteen fewer than he played at the same stage last season. But grass, which was once the main surface for professional tennis, has now become a secondary and acquired taste. Djokovic, who enjoyed nibbling on center court after winning titles at Wimbledon, clearly bought it.
As the best shot in men’s tennis, he can still break a serve on a pitch that favors the server. As the most agile player in men’s tennis, he can flex into all sorts of positions to handle lower grass rebounds. He can also turn off the baseline as well as throw opponents off balance by pitching and volleying big points.
“This is a crude recipe,” Annacone said. “And while we’re talking about how dominant he is on hard courts, his winning percentage on grass is actually higher.”
It’s true: His career singles winning percentage is 84 percent on hard courts, just short of his 85 percent on grass.
Now, in a dismal season, it’s time for the rightful Wimbledon favorite to try and widen that gap and close the gap on Nadal, who has 22 Grand Slam singles titles to Djokovic’s 20.