We came to a place where the only thing that made sense was Novak Djokovic screaming curses and then taking a small bite of his snack. He was sitting in his changeover chair, furious after losing the second set of yesterday’s Wimbledon final to Roger Federer in a pulverizing 12-10 tiebreak, and he was topless, because when he gets angry enough he has a habit of ripping his shirt down the front with his bare hands before peeling it off his body, and the tiebreak had made him this angry. Thick veins on his neck swelled under the chain of the wooden cross he always wears, the cross he got at Hilandar, a monastery on Greece’s Mount Athos that has been a center of Serbian Orthodox culture since the Middle Ages. Djokovic went there on a retreat with male relatives in 2009. He described it as “the most holy place I ever visited in my life.”
It was hard to make out what he barked at himself on the changeover — hard even to tell what language he was shouting in; he speaks five — but his glare looked a long way from holiness. The second set had been a minor frenzy, an unruly mini-drama within the larger drama of the final. Djokovic, who won the first set in a runaway 7-1 tiebreak, kept almost seizing full control of the match, and then, somehow, letting his rival slip away. He won every point on Federer’s second serve in the set, every one, until he had a set point at 5-4; then Federer held on to win the game. He took a 6-5 lead after exploiting a string of Federer backhand errors; then Federer won his next service game to force the tiebreak. There, Djokovic sprinted out to a 6-3 lead; Federer fought back. Djokovic took a 7-6 lead, then a 9-8 lead, then 10-9. Each time, Federer drilled a forehand winner or volleyed a sharp-angled backhand at the net to keep himself alive.
Djokovic has a narrow face, with a long, straight nose and black hair that looks screwed on. His eyes are set close together and are hooded, quick, observant. If he is desperate during a game, he never shows it. But as the tiebreak progressed, the quality of his concentration seemed to sour. His resolve looked like something imploding. He picked at his racket strings between points like someone cleaning lint off a tablecloth. Federer wound up saving seven set points en route to winning the tiebreak. Seven. During one rally, Djokovic fell down.
It was wild, thrilling tennis, the sort that leaves you gasping and clutching at the couch cushions, and Djokovic’s rage after it was understandable. It’s what he did next, though, that seemed telling. Still cursing at himself, he unsealed the lid of a Tupperware container, took out a small nugget of whatever gluten-free recovery food the engineers are pitching these days, and nibbled it down. Which of course he did — so would any player; the between-sets micro-snack is as much a part of the routine of the game as the service toss. Think of Rafael Nadal and his ritualized tiny bite of banana.
But it was the way Djokovic did it, with a careful deliberateness totally at odds with his ongoing outburst of temper, that foretold the rest of the match. It said that his mind was running on two planes at once. It said that he was melting down, but also attending to detail. It was funny to watch — a man eating a protein cube in wrath — but also a little terrifying. Scream, but dot your i’s: That’s Djokovic’s version of mental strength in 2015. The machine can catch fire, but the machine keeps running.
He got hold of himself. Almost as soon as play recommenced, the vitality started draining from the final. Djokovic in full flight is like a desaturation filter whose slider is slowly being cranked up. He’s so efficient, so cautious, so good at choosing the precise moments at which to abandon that caution for devastating aggression, so quick, so flexible, so fit, and so strong that he almost takes the tennis out of tennis, like a computer that’s solved chess. He doesn’t so much beat his opponents as patiently demonstrate their irrelevance.
Off the court, his life seems fevered, herculean. There’s the fierce Serbian patriotism, the entourage of shaved-headed Euro-bros, his wife Jelena’s operatic reactions to every point. The childhood terror under the NATO bombing of Belgrade. The prayer. The hours spent practicing on courts without nets. The reinvention as a gluten-free nutritional guru. The white tracksuits, the charity foundation, the massive celebrity in Serbia, where he’s the most famous human being alive. The home in Monte Carlo. The dogs (he has one named Tesla, after the great Serbian inventor). The infant son. Everything, all the time, all of it, plus Boris Becker.
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His game, though? That’s all business. In the third set against Federer, immediately after half-ripping his shirt off in frustration, Djokovic produced tennis of such airless perfection that it starved Federer’s emotional momentum of all fuel. Federer was the crowd favorite, the sentimental hero, and the player whom millions of fans wanted to see win an 18th major. Djokovic broke him in the third game of the set. Serving for the set at 5-4, up 15-0, Djokovic blasted a wide ad-court serve that Federer barely parried back over the net. Djokovic lined up a down-the-line backhand into Federer’s deuce court, moving the 33-year-old Swiss from one corner to the other, as if he were on a string. Federer just got to that shot, too, sending up an SOS flare of a high backhand lob that Djokovic, who’d crept up into midcourt, had plenty of time to smash back into Federer’s ad court, this time leaving Federer no chance. Left side, right side, left side: absolutely simple, ruthless tennis that Djokovic pulled off while taking about seven steps. He won 94 percent of his first-serve points and committed two unforced errors en route to winning the set.
What can you do against play like that? I mean as an opponent or as a fan? One of the fascinating paradoxes of Djokovic is that he seems to crave the crowd’s affection while producing tennis brilliantly calculated to take the crowd out of a match. It’s part of his program of turning weakness into strength. Early in his career he was known for wearing out in long matches, so he got obsessed with fitness, turned himself into perhaps the tour’s toughest athlete. Now he is unloved compared to his best rivals, so he has figured out how to neutralize a crowd. It’s about playing percentages, maximizing outcomes and minimizing risks. Give them long rallies but few chances to gasp. Never put yourself in obvious danger unless there’s an overwhelming chance you’ll succeed. Be an athlete capable of delivering electric thrills, but deliver them on your timetable, not as an obligation, not even as a style, but only when you think they will work.
It’s only after the match, when he drops to the court and eats a handful of grass, that you see the needy Djokovic, the would-be entertainer who scans the crowd hopefully during postmatch interviews to see if he’s won it over. This Djokovic is as far removed from the ruthless winner as the would-be monastic adherent is from the cursing fury. He is a strange screen on which sweetness and arrogance, anxiety and dominance, form shifting shapes. This, more than the mere fact of his desire to be loved, may explain why he tends not to inspire the same kind of adoration as Federer and Nadal. There is some inward twist in him that both humanizes him and makes fans want to keep him at arm’s length. Federer exists to be admired. With Djokovic, you always have the uncomfortable sense that he is watching you back.
Trailing 1-0, 15-15 in the fourth set, he showed the kind of crowd-pleasing tennis he’s capable of. Both players wound up at net after trading a series of dizzying dinks and slices. Federer played an outrageous crosscourt forehand volley, one of those shots so acute it pivots your sense of the court, and Djokovic just reached it, sending an unhittable forehand winner down the line. The crowd cheered. Had Federer won the point, it would have cheered louder. Djokovic won the set, 6-3, and with it the Wimbledon championship.
There will always be fans who can’t forgive him for beating Federer, whom he’s now knocked out of two straight Wimbledon finals, or for beating Nadal, whom he embarrassed at the French Open this year. That is part of what it means to be Djokovic. Another part of what it means is that even if this wounds him, it doesn’t slow him down. He has figured out what he needs to do, and he does it. If he needs to scream, he screams, then he gets himself together. There is no all-consuming sense of legacy to help rally him at difficult moments. He is in the historically bizarre position of being by far the best player in the world at a time when there are two active players with greater lifetime credentials than he is ever likely to achieve. (He has nine majors; Nadal, a year older, has 14.) No one is writing “Djokovic as Religious Experience.” There is no deep collective investment in what his story means. It means something because he says it does. Maybe he can’t quite believe this, which is why he surrounds himself with so many supporters. Maybe he can, which is why he keeps winning.