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Wimbledon 2018: Novak Djokovic Sees the Light

Belgrade in the nineteen-nineties, following the breakup of Yugoslavia, became a hive of homeopathic strangeness and Eastern Orthodox-tinged New Age awakening. No one has quite explained why, though there are theories that suggest that it was a reaction to decades of Communist repression of spirituality. Much of the world learned of this subculture’s existence ten years ago, when Radovan Karadžić, the Bosnian Serb nationalist and architect of a genocidal war against Bosnia’s Muslims, was finally captured after years of living underground. He was found in Belgrade, where he’d become a bearded bioenergy healer called Dragan Dabić, with a column in a national magazine and a book in the works touting a new form of sperm-rejuvenation therapy.

There are a number of ways to understand Novak Djokovic, who, on Sunday, won his fourth Wimbledon crown. This is because Djokovic is as complicated a tennis player as there is. But surely one way to understand him—the way he thinks and feels and goes about his sport and life—is as a man informed by the Serbian alt-medicine-cum-spiritual-scene of his youth. He has used biofeedback as part of his training, and a podlike hyperbaric chamber to recover after matches. He meditates and does yoga. He says “inner” and “yin-yang” a lot. He has written a cookbook that prescribes drinking only room-temperature water and eating only honey from bees that feed on New Zealand’s manuka trees. (Two spoonfuls a day.) In that cookbook, he also quotes what he calls his favorite Serbian proverb: “When nothing hurts, put a little stone in your shoe and start walking.”

At Wimbledon, two years ago, some sort of stone got into one or another of his Asics. Djokovic was the No. 1 player in the world and held all four major titles when he lost, shockingly, to the American Sam Querrey in the third round. There were rumors of marital strife. By year’s end, he had lost his top ranking, begun the process of parting with several of his coaches, and hired a former Spanish player named Pepe Imaz, who believed in the power of long hugs. In a video, seated next to Imaz, Djokovic declared, “We need to be able to look inwards, and to establish this connection with a divine light.”

Last year at Wimbledon, he was forced to retire during his quarter-final match due to an elbow injury—an injury that would eventually require surgery, from which he was believed to be only slowly recovering when he arrived in London a few weeks ago. Imaz was gone, and his longtime coach, Marián Vajda, had returned, and whether Djokovic took time to visit the Buddhapadipa complex near the All-England Tennis Club, which he normally does, is not known. What is clear is that the psychic, emotional, and physical tests that Djokovic has faced—and, given his mentalité, might even have welcomed to keep him on that Serbian seeker’s path of his—are, for now, behind him. He’s back. All the way back.

On Sunday, Djokovic defeated South Africa’s Kevin Anderson in the men’s final, 6–2, 6–2, 7–6 (3), in a match that appeared to be over in its first half hour. Anderson had spent a total of nearly eleven hours on court defeating Roger Federer, in the quarter-finals, and John Isner, in the semis. It would be hard for any player to recover from that, much less one who’s six feet eight, thirty-two-years old, and out in near-ninety-degree heat. Anderson was obviously stiff-legged, and said to be foot sore. He lurched toward balls not all that far from him, and sprayed and shanked mid-paced balls with mistimed forehands. Djokovic returned the way he does when he is playing well—near peerlessly—but otherwise seldom raised his play above a solid level. He sliced his backhands to get his tall opponent bending. And he kept his groundstrokes toward the center of the court, for the most part, knowing that a player as big and tired as Anderson would have a harder time getting out the way and to the side of a ball than running outstretched toward one. It did get interesting late in the third set—Djokovic saved five break points that would have been set points—but neither spectacular nor dramatic, really.

For those qualities, go back and watch the final two sets of Djokovic’s victory over Rafael Nadal, in their semifinal match, which began on Friday evening, was suspended after three sets, and resumed on Saturday. It’s the best men’s tennis that there’s been this year. Djokovic’s elbow problems notwithstanding, that should come as no surprise. During this fortnight at Wimbledon, as at every major, there surfaced the longing for Federer-Nadal—it was the tenth anniversary of their epic day-to-night Wimbledon final—but Djokovic-Nadal is the rivalry of the decade, and, arguably, of Open-era tennis. They have now played each other fifty-two times. (Djokovic holds the slightest of leads, 27–25.) They battle fiercely on all surfaces, as Rafa and Fed no longer do (because Fed skips clay). The side-to-side stretching of the court! The defense-to-offense shots on the run! And, as their semifinal stretched to a second day, after being stopped on Friday night by a local curfew, both of them got more daring with their point-creation patterns, and bolder about coming forward to the net to finish points. The Saturday half of their match was approaching the two-and-a-half-hour mark when Djokovic finally broke Nadal at love to take the fifth set, 10–8. That is, the two last sets of Djokovic’s victory over Nadal took a little more time than all of Djokovic’s win over Anderson. But, in its drama, it felt a lot shorter. It felt like a great final, which, in its way, it was.

When the actual final reached its end, Djokovic began that thing he does now with the crowd, extending his arms toward them—one portion of the stadium, then another, then another—exhorting them to roar, applaud, acknowledge him, share the love. (This is said to be something that he got from Pepe Imaz.) But he stopped after one try on Sunday, in the direction of his box. Maybe he was tired. Or maybe, for this moment, anyway, he was not in search of anything more than what he’d found.

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