Novak Djokovic is a great tennis champion, but merely the latest in a long line of people to learn the hard way that it’s always darkest before dawn.
There Djokovic was, midway through the fifth set in the Wimbledon final, swinging the stringed stick while trying his best to suppress what creeping doubts, anger and disappointment nibbled away at his heart and will.
It was all caused by the fact that Djokovic had let Roger Federer -- the great Roger Federer, the seven-time Wimbledon champ -- off the hook late in the fourth set, when Djokovic failed to convert a match point with Federer serving for his life at 4-5 and Djokovic up two sets to one.
Up in the player box, the fleshy face of Djokovic’s co-coach Boris Becker was turning lobster red (Boris don’t need no stinkin’ SPF 40!). Across the net, Federer was cracking aces like a regular Lazarus. Rafael Nadal probably was bobbing around in his yacht somewhere in the Mediterranean, watching on his cellphone and chortling. Would this be the day when Nadal's nemesis, gifted as he is, would earn the humiliating moniker Novak Chokevic?
Going into Wimbledon, Djokovic had a 6-7 career record in Grand Slam finals. Early in the year, he had failed to defend his Australian Open title (he didn’t even make the final, for the first time in four years). In Paris, his main goal for the year of completing a career Grand Slam with a French Open victory was blown to smithereens thanks to another beating administered by Nadal, the King of Clay.
Now here was Djokovic, on the verge of becoming the guy who held the gate open as Federer marched through to become the first man in 66 years to win a Wimbledon final after being down match point -- just another line item to add to Federer’s phone-book-sized list of accomplishment at a huge cost to Djokovic’s legacy.
However, if all of this put a certain amount of strain on Djokovic, he didn’t show it as the fifth set came to a climax. Ultimately, his composure and refusal to lose faith won him the Wimbledon title (with a little help from his service return, if you want to get all technical about it). It was the previous lack of those very intangibles that led Becker, one of the most courageous if not the most successful of champions, to his seat in the player’s box on a sunny, hot day in London.
It was easy to forget the women’s final in the wake of the spectacular show put on by Djokovic and Federer, yet in some ways the wins by Djokovic and the Czech Republic’s Petra Kvitova -- just a lowly No. 6 seed -- had some commonality.
Djokovic had accomplished far more than Kvitova leading up to this tournament (although at a comparable age, Djokovic was also struggling), and his star power exceeds Kvitova by a few orders of magnitude. But anyone who took account of the power and precision Kvitova showed when she won the Wimbledon title in 2011 surely had to be baffled by how infrequently she’s been able to summon that game on the big stages in recent years.
Painfully shy (something Djokovic has never been accused of) and forced by her nerves to wage a constant battle against anxiety, Kvitova hadn’t even been to the semifinals of a major since the spring of 2012. Granted, she was barely 21 when she first won Wimbledon. But just how much time does a player need to adjust to the rarefied atmosphere at the top?
The reality is that people were acknowledging Kvitova as a contender only when goaded into it. She just found too many ways to lose, too often. Until last weekend.
Kvitova put on a display of aggressive tennis as formidable as anything we’ve seen pouring off the racket of Serena Williams. Kvitova took Eugenie Bouchard, a genius at competing and a young lady destined for greatness, and simply demolished her. Now, Kvitova is back in the conversation that begins with the question “What happens when Serena and Venus retire?”
For Djokovic and Kvitova, the theme of this Wimbledon was vindication. Each of them achieved it, albeit in vastly different ways.