The  champion returns

 - Alix Ramsay

As we watched him beat Kevin Anderson and lift the Wimbledon trophy aloft, we knew that Nole was back.

Novak Djokovic lift the Wimbledon 2018 trophy.©Corinne Dubreuil/FFT

The champion is back. For the past few rounds, we had known that Novak Djokovic was back but now, as we watched him beat Kevin Anderson and lift the Wimbledon trophy aloft, we knew that the champion Novak Djokovic was back amongst us.

Djokovic played smart

The final itself was not much to behold. Anderson had spent 21 hours and one minute just to get to the final and for two sets, he was running on fumes. If he stayed back, he was out-rallied; if he came in, he was passed. And as for his serve, it was stuttering while Djokovic, one of the best returners in the game, stifled it.

Djokovic played smart: he served to the big man’s forehand to negate the return. Anderson’s forehand is his stronger wing but his weaker return so the soon-to-be champion targeted it. Then he slowed down the pace, he made Anderson work knowing full well that the South African had no gas left in the tank.

Only when he was homing in on the title did he look frail. Anderson was playing better while on the other side of the net, Djokovic was getting tight. Three double faults in one game pulled up two set points for the South African. Djokovic wriggled out of that one.

In the next service game, Djokovic fended off another three set points. Bounce the ball 10, 12, 18 times and bang: a service winner. You could almost hear his nerves fraying while the crowd were getting involved, fed up with the interminable ball bouncing before every serve. No matter, Djokovic held his nerve, controlled his emotions and got to the tiebreak. Once there, he was always in charge. That is hat champions do.

Novak Djokovic and Kevin Anderson trophy ceremony Wimbledon 2018©Corinne Dubreuil/FFT
“It’s hard to pick the words”

In reality, the final had been played over two days on Friday and Saturday. Djokovic’s five set win over Rafa Nadal was the first time he had beaten the Spaniard in the penultimate round of a Grand Slam. He had beaten him everywhere else and at every other stage – 26 victories to Nadals’s 25 – but three times at Roland Garros and one in SW19, Nadal had been the immovable road block keeping Djokovic away from the final.

And then, in five sets and five hours, 15 minutes split over Friday night and Saturday lunchtime, Djokovic beat Nadal. When it was over, he was stunned and almost speechless.

“It’s hard to pick the words,” he said falteringly. “I’m just going through things, flashback to the last 15 months and everything I’ve been through to get here, to get to the finals and to win against the best player in the world in one of the longest matches I ever played over the two days. I don’t know – I’m just overwhelmed.

“Basically until the last shot I didn’t know if I’m going to win. I believed it but I knew that he was very, very close and he had some chances. These kind of matches you live for, you work for.”

Stefan and Jelena Djokovic Wimbledon 2018.©Corinne Dubreuil/FFT
The belief was reinforced

And with that, the belief was reinforced. He could do this again. He had faced his greatest rival in a match he had dreamed of for the past two years and he had held body and soul together to win. Now he was ready for the final.

“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,” Djokovic said. “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.”

Now the American hard court season awaits him. It is his favourite surface and winning has become his favourite hobby, one he thought he had given up forever just a few weeks ago.

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

“I really can't see the future. I don't know what's going to happen. But I like to play on hard courts. US Open was always successful tournament for me. I haven't played it last year because of injuries. I'm looking forward to also go out there and play my best and see where it takes me.”

And with that, he sounded for all the world like Novak Djokovic the champion of old. We have not seen him for a while.