By CATHAL KELLY
Monday, July 15, 2019
LONDON -- After he'd won a classic in front of a crowd that very badly did not want him to, Novak Djokovic didn't bother celebrating.
Instead, he turned slowly and took in every section of the Wimbledon Centre Court audience. His expression might best be described as a smirk. He'd shown them.
Sunday's men's singles championship against Roger Federer ended in a thrilling fifthset tiebreaker. At 4 hours 57 minutes, it was the longest final in the tournament's history.
The Serb proved two things over the past two weeks - that he is the least-appreciated, leastloved great player in tennis history; and that he may soon be the greatest of all.
Mr. Djokovic is a perfectly nice guy who does and says all the right things, but for whatever reason is unable to connect with people. That was evident through every part of the final.
The audience roared for Mr. Federer throughout. Not most of the audience. All of it.
Even the attendees in the Royal Box, who are expected to be above sporting partisanship, were up on their feet over the course of the match.
When Mr. Djokovic double-faulted early on, there was a smattering of applause. When he tried to argue a call during the tension at the end, he was roundly jeered. Once it was done, the winner got conspicuously less of an ovation than the loser.
Mr. Djokovic prevailed 7-6 (5), 1-6, 7-6 (4), 4-6, 13-12 (3).
Usually an effusive on-court presence, Mr.Djokovic's response at the end was to fold into himself. No fist pumps; no shouts toward his box. He didn't fall to the ground or hold his head in his hands. He walked straight over to Mr. Federer for the handshake. He looked in a hurry to leave.
"It was mentally the most demanding match I've ever been part of," Mr. Djokovic said. "This was a different level. Because of everything."
He didn't need to explain what "everything" meant.
For all his reaction, you'd have thought it was a first-round match at Indian Wells, not his fifth Wimbledon championship, which puts him level with Bjorn Borg.
Despite the way the crowd had treated him, Mr. Djokovic tried to reach out one more time during his postmatch speech.
"This has always been the tournament for me, that I wanted to participate ..." and told a story about making his own Wimbledon trophy as a child. He seemed to be either holding back tears or unsuccessfully willing himself to cry.
The crowd wasn't moved. They were still too busy feeling sorry for Mr. Federer.
This is where you list off all the things the Swiss has and is doing that are remarkable - in a final 16 years after he first won this event; still working at an elite level at nearly 38; having to go through the two other best players in history (Rafael Nadal and Mr. Djokovic) in order to get there.
But if this match lives on in the Federer legend, it will be as his most spectacular bust. He had two consecutive championship points in the late going. He missed both.
Few pros are more gracious in defeat, but it was clear this one hurt. In his postmatch oncourt interview, it was suggested to him that he'd given viewers something "we will remember forever."
"I will try to forget," Mr. Federer said.
He laughed as he did, but it was a little too on the nose.
Given a chance to liken the match with his 2008 Wimbledon final classic against Mr. Nadal, Mr. Federer passed.
"I'm the loser both times," he said. "That's the only similarity I see."
Although tempting, there is little comparison with a decade ago. That match was a street fight. Federer versus Djokovic 2019 was more of a shoving contest. A back-and-forth tactical battle that didn't get truly tense until the final moments.
Some contests are all over the place. This one was very reliably in one place, with Mr. Federer trying to pick his spots and Mr. Djokovic doing his human Pong routine.
As such, people won't remember Mr. Djokovic's victory. They'll recall Mr. Federer's choke.
See? Even when the Serb wins, he loses a little.
Afterward, Mr. Djokovic gave a rambling news conference. He didn't seem happy, exactly. When he was asked about the crowd's reaction to him, he straightened up in his chair and put both hands in his jacket pockets.
"At times, you are trying to ignore it. Which is hard," Mr. Djokovic said. "I try to transmutate it.
When the crowd is chanting 'Roger,' I hear 'Novak.' ..." It was a good line and got a laugh, but he couldn't leave it there.
"... It sounds silly, but it is like that. I try to convince myself that it's like that."
This poor guy just can't help himself. Even when he's doing his best to play it cool, he ends up trying way too hard. It's his nature.
It's that neediness that seems to put people off Mr. Djokovic. He may never stop talking about the vegan lifestyle, but mostly, he's corny - the postmatch handsfrom-the-heart routine; the grass-eating once he's won.
There's an irony in this. Every top tennis player has their image built from scratch by corporate backers. Just look at the gawky, pony-tailed weirdo Mr. Federer was 15 years ago, and the 007-with-a-racquet he is today. That didn't happen because he got a subscription to GQ.
Mr. Djokovic has none of that polish. The guy you are getting is pretty obviously the real guy, including all the oddness and discomfort. But it's his realness people hold against him.
What they can no longer ignore is his place among the Big Three, with Mr. Nadal and Mr.
Federer. Mr. Djokovic is now the biggest.
He's won four of the past five Grand Slams.
He's moved to 16 for his career, two behind Mr.Nadal and four behind Mr. Federer. After a long injury-abetted wobble a couple of years ago, he now has those targets properly triangulated. In his current form, he may top the list inside two years.
He's already up on tennis's Mount Rushmore. Mr. Djokovic's search for greatness is done.
Now he can resume looking for the love that's supposed to go with that.
Usually an effusive on-court presence, Novak Djokovic had a subdued response after his win, walking straight over to shake hands with Roger Federer.
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