Djokovic rises from the doldrums to rule Wimbledon once again

 - Alex Sharp

The former world No.1 has endured a testing two years on Tour blighted by injuries, doubts and a plethora of challenges. Now he’s back.

“It's usually in a struggle that you get to know yourself, you get to have an opportunity to rise like a phoenix and evolve and get better.”

Novak Djokovic frequently speaks so eloquently in press conferences, but the Serbian was particularly emotive and expressive having lifted the Wimbledon title for a fourth time on Sunday.

His SW19 triumph, an archetypal dominant Djokovic performance in straight sets over Kevin Anderson, capped a turbulent two years for the 31-year-old.

Roland Garros 2016 – ruling the roost

Rewind two summers and Djokovic was Roland-Garros champion. He posted a 3-6, 6-1, 6-2, 6-4 victory against Andy Murray. It was a significant triumph as during Djokovic’s 100th consecutive week as world No.1, the Serbian completed his ‘Career Slam’.

In doing so, he became the first man since legendary Rod Laver in 1969 to hold all four majors simultaneously. His dominance was undeniable.

“It's a very special moment, the biggest of my career," stated Djokovic,” drawing a heart onto Court Philippe Chatrier Guga style.

Novak Djokovic draws a heart on court Phillipe Chatrier at roland-Garros 2016©Nicolas Gouhier/FFT
Murray takes to the throne

Djokovic followed his Parisian title tilt with a shock third round exit at Wimbledon at the hands of Sam Querrey, which sparked an unpredictable series of results for the previously all-conquering Serb.

He still advanced to the US Open final, where an inspired Stan Wawrinka prevailed. Over to the ATP World Tour Finals in London and Murray swatted all aside to take the title and Djokovic’s No.1 ranking.

The aura of ‘Nole’ had diminished and was well and truly vanquished by a 2017 second round departure from Melbourne, as the six-time champion fell to world No.68 Denis Istomin in a five-set thriller.

Concerns over a loss of confidence and form were unfortunately enhanced when a right elbow injury at Wimbledon forced Djokovic to retire from a quarter-final clash with Tomas Berdych.

“There were several moments where I was frustrated and questioning whether I can get back on desired level or not. But that makes this whole journey even more special for me,” explained Djokovic, who was side-lined for the rest of the 2017 season.

“I really am grateful to go through this kind of, so to say, mixed emotions, turbulences as well mentally, moments of doubt and disappointment and frustration, anger.

“It's a learning curve, it really is. Helped me, not just as a tennis player, but just as a human being to get to know myself on deeper levels.”

The journey was far from over.

He “played with pain” having adapted his serve to rush back into competition at the 2018 Australian Open. With his pivotal right arm protected in a sleeve, the sharpness evading him, Djokovic valiantly reached the fourth round.

Minor surgery required and problem solved

“It was inevitable for me to go on a table and have a surgery, even though I was trying everything to avoid it,” reflected the 13-time Grand Slam champion.

“After that I had a really good recovery. Maybe too fast. I got back to the court too fast. I wasn't ready to compete. I was still feeling a little bit of discomfort and pain playing Indian Wells, Miami (losing both first matches). I just kept going even though everyone was against me competing at that stage. So, I had to learn the lessons in a hard way.

“It took me several months really to regain the confidence, go back to basics, start to hit as many balls on the practice court as possible so I can feel comfortable, playing on the high level.”

Novak Djokovic fist pumping Wimbledon 2018©Corinne Dubreuil/FFT
The Road to Roland-Garros

Returning to the red dirt offered a fresh start having fallen out of the Top 20 and Djokovic incrementally found his range.

Another first hurdle defeat this time by Martin Klizan in Barcelona didn’t promise a successful clay court campaign.

However , shoots of recovery were formed in Rome, reaching the semi-finals, before falling to Rafael Nadal 7-6(4), 6-3 in a finely poised encounter.

Over to Paris and Djokovic was building the foundations of his renaissance. He was striking with more conviction, rediscovered his ruthless edge to earn a quarter-final spot having relinquished just one set.

A maverick showing from Marco Cecchinato halted the run, but Djokovic demonstrated his gladiatorial battling instincts, saving three match points until the Italian prevailed.

In a brief press conference Djokovic claimed 40 days before Wimbledon, “I don't know if I'm going to play on the grass."

Nadal conquest the true test

A year ago on the grass lawns of Eastbourne was the last time Djokovic has won a title. Well, a final run at Queen’s and a Wimbledon fortnight provided the setting for a riveting return to the Roll of Honour.

A strong calibre of soaring Brit Kyle Edmund, Next Gen star Karen Khachanov and Kei Nishikori were dispatched with the three-time champion increasingly playing and performing like his former self.

It was a classic semi-final with perennial rival Nadal which proved Djokovic is back to his mesmerising and destructive best.

That was something that I was missing, to be honest, that kind of competitive match play feeling of being toe-to-toe with an opponent in a big match in the later stages of Grand Slams,” declared Djokovic having prevailed in their 52nd bout, inching him 27-25 ahead in the record books against the world No.1.

“Playing against Nadal in the semi-finals here was the biggest test that I could have specifically for that, just to see whether I can prevail. That's why I spend a lot of energy and I put a lot of effort to win that match because I knew on a short run and long run how much that will mean to me and how much it means to me, to my confidence.”

The confidence was oozing following the absorbing 6-4, 3-6, 7-6(9), 3-6, 10-8 illustration of Djokovic’s full artillery.

“I couldn't pick the better place, to be honest, in the tennis world to peak and to make a comeback. Wimbledon has been always a very special tournament to me,” stated Djokovic, who had his son watch at the trophy ceremony.

“I dreamed of winning it when I was a seven-year-old boy. I made a lot of improvised Wimbledon trophies from different materials.

Novak Djokovic and Marian Vajda Wimbledon 2018©Corinne Dubreuil/FFT
Back where Novak belongs?

With Grand Slam No.13 up in the trophy cabinet, it would be a seismic surprise to not have Djokovic repeatedly competing for majors at his usual frequency before the past two campaigns.

“I understand that people are questioning whether I can consistently play on this level. Trust me, I am, too,” said Djokovic with a smirk. “At the same time, I can't look too far on the road because I have to embrace and cherish this kind of accomplishment.

“If you asked me a month and a half ago whether I think I can win Wimbledon, part of me yes, I hope, but maybe I wasn't that sure at that time of my level of tennis.

“This is obviously very pleasing and satisfying. This is going to be a huge confidence boost and springboard for whatever is coming up.”