WIMBLEDON, England — While the French Open has long been Rafael Nadal’s time, Wimbledon has become Novak Djokovic’s time.
He is still not the best grass-court player of this Darwinian era in men’s tennis. Roger Federer, 40, absent from this year’s tournament, still gets that nod with his eight singles titles at the All England Club. But Djokovic, who used to pose with a home-made replica of the winner’s trophy in his youth, has been arguably the best in recent years with his acrobatic, baseline style, and is arguably the best grass-court player in the history. the men’s field when the Wimbledon main draw kicks off on Monday.
“It’s hard not to make Novak the prohibitive favourite,” said Paul Annacone, one of Federer’s former trainers. “People talk about preparation and lack of matches and things like that, but the thing is when you’ve played Wimbledon so many times and been there at the end so many times, I don’t think it’s that big of a deal.”
Bjorn Borg, the stone-faced Swede, broke the mold in Wimbledon preparation, winning the event five times in a row between 1976 and 1980 without playing an official grass-court preparation tournament. But the mold was repaired and redistributed for nearly 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 playing a tune-up event on tour and will try to do the same again this year as he attempts to win Wimbledon for the fourth time in a row. .
“Every day that you can rest a little bit and restart helps,” Djokovic said. “But of course, we are all different.”
Speaking of the grass courts, he added: “I didn’t have too much trouble adapting quickly to the surface. Over the years, I’ve also learned to play more efficiently on the surface. At the beginning of my career, I still struggled with movement and sliding.
Djokovic, who will open the game on center court on Monday against unseeded Kwon Soon-woo of South Korea, has not played a competitive match since his deflated and frankly baffling loss to Nadal in the 2018 Open quarterfinals. France. Djokovic had seemingly weathered the storm of Nadal’s thunderous start, but couldn’t keep up his momentum and then blew a lead in the fourth and final set.
He spent some downtime with his wife, Jelena, and their two young children before arriving in London to play – and play very well – in last week’s grass-court exhibition event at the Hurlingham Club.
Nadal followed the same template, racing against the clock to recover from radiofrequency ablation, which numbs nerves by using radio waves, to treat a left foot injury before playing, not so convincingly, at Hurlingham. . Unlike his arch-rival Djokovic, Nadal has never won Wimbledon without an official grass-court tournament. His two titles, in 2008 and 2010, came after competing at Queen’s Club, and unlike Djokovic, Nadal has not played at Wimbledon since 2019.
The tournament was canceled in 2020 due to the pandemic, with Nadal skipping last year due to a chronic foot problem that has remained his concern throughout his superb on-and-off 2022 campaign. He has won the first two stages of the Grand Slam: The Australian Open in January and then the French Open this month despite having to take painkiller injections to numb his left foot before the seven rounds in Paris.
But he said Saturday that the radiofrequency treatment had eased his daily pain and given him the freedom to push off aggressively with his left foot, and there certainly seemed to be a spring to his step and an urgency to his mood as he practiced on the end. week at the All England Club.
“First of all, I can walk normally most days, almost every day,” he said. “That is the main problem for me. When I wake up, I don’t have this pain that I’ve had for the last year and a half, so I’m really happy about that.”
Watch out world, but even though Nadal has moved mountains in 2022, it will still be an uphill battle to reach Djokovic’s level on grass.
They can only meet in the final as the tournament’s top two seeds, with top-seeded Daniil Medvedev and second-seeded Alexander Zverev absent. Medvedev, a Russian, is among the players excluded from Wimbledon this year due to the war in Ukraine. Zverev, a German, tore ligaments in his right ankle in his semifinal loss to Nadal at the French Open on June 3.
But there are still clear, big-serving threats to a Djokovic-Nadal rematch, which would be the Open Era’s record 10th men’s matchup in a Grand Slam final.
Hubert Hurkacz, a lovable Pole who beat Federer last year in the quarterfinals, is a grass-court wizard and manhandled Medvedev to win the title in Halle, Germany, this month. He is in the middle of Djokovic’s draw at Wimbledon. Matteo Berrettini, the mighty Italian who lost to Djokovic in the Wimbledon final last year and just won grass-court taper events in Stuttgart, Germany, and at the Queen’s Club, is in Nadal’s half.
But Nadal, who faces Francisco Cerundolo, an unseeded Argentine, in the first round on Tuesday, could have a big test if he meets Sam Querrey of the United States in the second round.
Querrey’s ranking has slipped, but he remains dangerous on grass and is the last man to beat Djokovic in a full match at Wimbledon, defeating him in the third round in 2016 when Djokovic began a tailspin that would last nearly two years.
Djokovic is in another difficult phase, partly through his own fault, by refusing to be vaccinated against covid-19, unlike any other major male tennis player. That led to his deportation from Australia in January before the Australian Open and could keep him out of the US Open later this year unless the United States lifts its entry ban on unvaccinated foreigners.
“Of course I am aware of that,” Djokovic said. “That’s extra motivation to do well here. Hopefully I can have a very good tournament, as I have done in the last three editions. So I’ll have to wait and see. I would love to go to the United States, but as of today, that is not possible.”
He has played just 21 games in 2022: Fourteen less than he had played in this same stadium last season. But grass, once the main surface of professional tennis, is now a sideshow and an acquired taste. Djokovic, who has liked to chew on a blade of Center Court grass after his Wimbledon titles, has clearly acquired it.
As the best returner in men’s tennis, he can still break serve on a surface that favors the server. As the most flexible player in men’s tennis, he can bend into all sorts of positions to deal with the lowest bounce on grass. He can also shut down the baseline and also keep opponents off balance by serving and volleying on important points.
“It’s a rough recipe,” Annacone said. “And while we talk about how much he dominates on hard courts, his winning percentage is actually higher on grass.”
That’s true: His career winning percentage in singles is 84 percent on hard courts, just shy of his 85 percent on grass.
Now, in a gloomy season, it is time for the legitimate Wimbledon favorite to try to widen that gap and reduce the gap with Nadal, who has 22 Grand Slam singles titles to Djokovic’s 20.