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Novak Djokovic makes a dramatic comeback at Wimbledon

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WIMBLEDON, England — He’s staged unreasonable beauty in late June and early July, and it can feel like he has it locked away on his walls and bleachers. Center Court, still incredibly elegant at 100, has seen Martina Navratilova volley, Pete Sampras hold serve and Roger Federer redefine the geometry. He has seen the will of Billie Jean King, the technique of Rod Laver, the grace of Bjorn Borg, the wonder of two Williams.

At Wimbledon on Tuesday, he saw something right next to all of that: the commanding will and absurd level that six-time champion Novak Djokovic has found for himself, all wrapped up in a five-set match. Djokovic trailed by two sets against a blast. of a phenomenon

Then a place like no other saw a more unmistakable grandeur. What gluttony.

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If Djokovic’s 5-7, 2-6, 6-3, 6-2, 6-2 win over 20-year-old Italian Jannik Sinner isn’t memorable for the center court patrons who watched and tried to cheer to Sinner, it could be because they popped an extra cork or two, a solid center court has adopted in recent years. If the passing shot Djokovic hit late in the fifth set doesn’t stick out in memory due to too much Pimm or whatever, well, there’s always YouTube, where it belongs in perpetuity.

From a rational standpoint, it could still be puzzling how anyone could find out what things looked like for Djokovic on Center Court in the middle of the afternoon. Djokovic described what everyone saw: “I started to doubt my shots. He began to believe more in himself. He had a better mindset, I guess, on the court. I didn’t stay at the rallies. He had the confidence to step in and dictate the play. I wasn’t staying on the rails. I missed out, I was too passive, and it happens, you know, at this level, particularly on grass, everything happens very quickly.

What followed was the work of the greats, even if it required a trip to the bathroom and a look in the mirror and a conversation with the face in it. The 17 years Djokovic has spent in five-set Grand Slam matches seemed visible in how the 35-year-old suddenly found a level of tennis rare enough that it could be the rarest.

He has played 43 five-set matches in the four most coveted events. He has won 34 of them. He has won 16 of his last 18. He won against Federer in the 2019 final here when Djokovic’s unforced errors in all three tiebreaks he won ended in nil. He has won them since 2005—Wimbledon, second round, Guillermo Garcia-Lopez—and has won them seven times since the two-set hole: against Garcia-Lopez then, Federer at the 2011 US Open, Andreas Seppi at the 2012 French Open. , Kevin Anderson at Wimbledon 2015, Lorenzo Musetti and Stefanos Tsitsipas at the French Open 2021 and Sinner on Tuesday. His opponent had gone 2-2 in four before Tuesday, not bad for a cub.

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However, it was when Djokovic raised the level to the clouds (three unforced errors in the third set, eight in the fourth, three in the fifth) that both players began to notice the change in direction. For that, they would look back to the same game without consulting each other: the fourth game of the third set, when Djokovic broke at love 3-1. Sinner would lament his “easy forehand at the net” that made things love-30 and helped build the snowball. Djokovic would tell both the crowd in the post-match interview and the reporters in the interview room that he felt “confident” there while he noted in Sinner a hint of “doubt”.

He could feel things from across the court, and not just when he jumped the net in the fourth set to help Sinner after the lad twisted his ankle and spilled out in brief agony. Amidst multiple praises for Sinner as “fantastic,” “very present-minded,” “dedicated,” and “professional,” Djokovic said, “I feel like Sinner, you know, going into the match didn’t have much to lose, but he he had a lot to lose when he had two sets to love. I could feel that mentally with him.”

That’s the level of otherworldly feeling from someone who’s played these fights for 17 years who said, “You approach these particular situations when you’re in two sets a little bit more calm, a little bit more confident, a little bit more confident in yourself. myself, if that could be a definition of that.” He said, “These things play a role. What a big role, that really depends on both players.” And he said, “From the start of the third, I played three sets of tennis really solid and very high quality. From the beginning of the third, when I broke his serve early, I felt like I found my rhythm and rhythm on the shots.”

He said, “I played a new match, to be honest,” even as Sinner fairly said, “In the fifth set, I think I played the right way.”

That fifth set had Sinner hitting a groaning drop goal that fluttered like a dying mosquito toward the net at the weary end of a 12-shot rally. That point gave Djokovic a valuable break of serve for 2-1. Then, when Sinner served at 2-4 with the afternoon getting bluer but the stage lights about to go out, the point at 30-30 brought the point of runaway dominance.

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Three shots into the rally, Sinner drove Djokovic to the backhand corner and brought his lanky side and powerful shots into the net. Djokovic went there to drag the thing and it split nearly in two, dived and redirected the ball back across the court and past Sinner. The crowd marveled no matter what, and Djokovic remained on his chest making a plane shape or, as one joker put it, “more seaplane.”

Then he got up and did his old ironic ritual of asking for applause.

It was a one-point sigh for a player sigh, so it’s no wonder that on the next one, at break point, Sinner went to a caretaker and hit him badly for so long it seemed like a nightmare. He seemed like he knew he would have to do something perfect.

Djokovic then won again, his 84th singles victory at Wimbledon since it began in 2005, telling the crowd about the “pep talk in the mirror”, later saying of it: “It’s actually true.” . They all laughed and he talked about having to “recover and, I guess, put your mind back together and put it back together,” saying, “The internal struggle is always the biggest struggle you have to go through on the court.”

Same with life, of course, but here he had won another infight, and been something else, and somehow Center Court had seen it too.

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