One of the strangest men’s Wimbledon tournaments in recent memory wrapped up on Sunday. The field was barred to Russian and Belarussian contenders, preventing two of the top 10 players in the world from participating. One of last year’s finalists had to withdraw before his first match. Rafael Nadal could have won his third major of the calendar year but withdrew after the quarterfinals because of an abdominal injury.
Despite all that, according to the tennis odds market and common sense, we got an extremely predictable ending. Novak Djokovic won his 21st major championship, his fourth straight title on the London Lawn.
Djokovic defeated Nick Kyrgios, 4-6, 6-3, 6-4, 7-6.
I’ll have more to say about Kyrgios later this week. But on the day after the championship, I want to focus on Djokovic’s accomplishment.
This has not been an easy year for Djokovic, who has gotten pretty accustomed to frictionless tour outings over the last half-decade or so. He won his first major in 2008 and completed his career slam at the French Open in 2016.
Djokovic has been particularly dominant since Nadal and Roger Federer started aging out of their athletic prime. Since the summer of 2018, Djokovic has won nine of the 15 major tournaments he has appeared in from Wimbledon on.
Djokovic has also dominated many of the Masters 1000 tour events over the last decade. From 2014-16, for instance, he won more than half of the 27 tournaments by himself.
So, yeah. The guy is historically great.
But the last 12 months have been challenging for Djokovic in unusual ways for a player used to such gilded performances.
Many here will point to his status as an unvaccinated player, which certainly is a piece of the puzzle. Djokovic was ultimately barred from competing in the first major tournament of the year by the Australian government because he wished to remain unvaccinated from COVID-19.
Thus, instead of beginning the year in earnest in Melbourne – Djokovic has won more Australian Opens than anyone in history – he watched it on TV like the rest of us.
But Djokovic’s pains aren’t limited to vaccine drama. He just hasn’t looked at the top of his game since last year’s US Open, when he lost his best chance at a calendar slam in the US Open final. Then, Daniil Medvedev worked him in straight sets.
Since then, he’s lost some strange matches, including a sub-100 loss in Dubai to Jiri Vesely.
He also lost his first match at Monte Carlo and the championship round of his home tournament in Serbia, just to name a few.
Djokovic clearly hasn’t been right, but it’s his spiritual self that’s suffering more than his physical health.
“First of all, I had the great support of my family and close people in my life, but even with their support, I still felt lonely,” Djokovic said on Sunday. “Because of just the incredible pressure that I never faced before. It was outside of sport, it was nothing related to sport and everything related to all the other things; I just found myself in, basically, foreign waters.”
Djokovic’s comments came on the heels of winning at Wimbledon yet again, feasting on late Kyrgios mistakes for his 21st title.
With Djokovic’s level of sustained success, you would think another championship would be just another display option for his personal trophy case.
But the last year has been challenging for Djokovic in ways that are both ordinary and unprecedented.
His vaccine drama is likely not over. Unless there’s a change in the US policy surrounding COVID vaccines and international visitors, Djokovic will also be prevented from playing in the US Open in September.
But after a challenging year of losing tennis and international pressure, another championship at Wimbledon must feel like a uniquely personal reward.