- Greg Garber, Writer, Reporter
- 0 Shares
WIMBLEDON, England -- Victory finally secured, Novak Djokovic squatted on Centre Court, his head in his hands. He reached down and plucked a few blades of grass -- and literally tasted his success.
In 2008, Rafael Nadal brought an end to Roger Federer's magnificent reign on Centre Court at Wimbledon. In one of the greatest matches ever played, the young Spaniard won his first title at the All England Club and stopped Federer's run of 40 straight Wimbledon victories. It was a violent shift of the tectonic plates of tennis, and it created a tsunami; Nadal won six of 12 majors and displaced Federer as the game's best player.
Three years later, on the same patch of singed grass, Djokovic ended Nadal's 20-match winning streak at Wimbledon. Playing the role of upstart, the 24-year-old Serb beat Nadal 6-4, 6-1, 1-6, 6-3.
It is impossible to know with certainty, but this 125th staging of the Lawn Tennis Championships may have marked another profound change in the men's game. Djokovic has now won eight of his past 10 matches against Nadal -- and five in a row.
And it represented the first time Djokovic has beaten him in a Grand Slam.
"For sure, always Wimbledon for me was [the] most special tournament," Nadal said later on court. "When I won in 2008 for the first time, emotions were very high. I know how Novak feels today."
As a kid growing up in Serbia, Djokovic watched Wimbledon on television. Today, he considers it the most important tournament. Now he has an All England title to go with his two Australian Open championships.
"This is the greatest achievement for him," said his mother, Dijana. "Twenty years ago, when he watched [Pete] Sampras winning the Wimbledon trophy, that's why he started to play tennis.
"His [goal] was to win Wimbledon and to be No. 1. Today he won Wimbledon and tomorrow he is No. 1, so this is two dreams in one day."
Said Djokovic, "The best day of my life, the most special day of my life. I think I am still sleeping, having this dream."
Djokovic is only 11 months younger than Nadal, but on this day, at least, he seemed a step faster and one decision ahead of the two-time Wimbledon champion, who was operating with a foot injury. Nadal, perhaps feeling the pressure of Djokovic's extraordinary ability to retrieve, often went too big too early, and missed too often.
Two games, the last of the first set and the first of the second, forged Djokovic's advantage. Nadal was serving at 4-5 and led 30-love, when Djokovic cracked two exquisite forehand winners. And then Nadal hit two too-forceful forehands, one into the net and the other wide. That gave Djokovic the set. The Serb was down love-30, but recovered to hold when Rafa missed another forehand and blew a makeable smash.
Tactically, Djokovic wasn't afraid to hit to Nadal's lethal lefty forehand. Since Nadal has a tendency to cheat to the right to cover his weaker backhand, Djokovic caught him a number of times. Djokovic showed a willingness to come to net behind his forehand, and his volleys were clean. He won 19 of 26 points at net. Rafa, oddly passive, only ventured to net nine times.
The critical break in the fourth set came in an awful service game for Nadal. It began with a double fault and ended with a backhand sprayed long, and Rafa's body language told you it was over.
Afterward, Nadal was subdued and sounded almost baffled. One of the world's most mentally tough athletes, Nadal admitted he did not raise his game when he needed it most.
"I played a little bit less aggressive," Nadal said. "To win in matches here, to win tough matches like today, the most important thing is [to] play well [in] the important moments. And I didn't today.
"That's what happened in Indian Wells, that's what happened in Miami, and that's what happened here. And to change that is probably be little bit less nervous, play more aggressive, and all the time be confident with myself. That's what I'm going to try next time."
"If not, I'm going to be here explaining the sixth."
Although Djokovic came into the match having won 47 of 48 matches, he and his camp were among a minority who believed it would happen. True, he had beaten Nadal in four finals this year already, but none of them was a Grand Slam event. Nadal, in fact, had beaten Djokovic in all four of their major meetings, including the Wimbledon semifinals in 2007, when Djokovic retired ignominiously with blisters on his toe.
Today's mature, supremely confident player bears no resemblance to that one. With that record of 48-1 -- he lost to Federer in the semifinals at Roland Garros -- and two majors already collected, Djokovic is poised to have one of the greatest seasons ever. John McEnroe's 82-3 season in 1984 is the highest winning percentage of the Open era. More recently, Federer was 81-4 in 2005.
The rankings system, an impenetrable forest of accounting, had already decreed that Djokovic will be No. 1 when the new rankings are released Monday. This was achieved when he won his semifinal match over Jo-Wilfried Tsonga. It's the first time in nearly 7½ years that Nadal or Federer haven't been the top player.
For fans of minutia: Djokovic has 13,285 points and Nadal is second, with 12,070.
Of earning the No. 1 ranking and winning his first Wimbledon title, Djokovic said, "Couple of good days in the office."
In many eyes, this match was the real battle for No. 1, and Djokovic -- unlike the WTA's No. 1-ranked Caroline Wozniacki -- now owns a technical and very real on-court claim on the throne.
The day before the final, Rafa -- who is essentially a truth-teller -- insisted he was the underdog.
"His mental position over me today is probably a little better," he said, "because he won the last four finals against me."
This turned out to be true.
"When one player beat you five times is because today my game doesn't bother him a lot," Nadal said. "Against me, he's playing better than my level. Find solutions. That's what I have to try. Seriously, I only lose matches this year against him. That's the truth.
"Probably, the mental part is a little bit dangerous for me. My experience says [Djokovic's] level is not forever. I'm going to be here fighting all the time, waiting my moment. I understand the sport like this. Last five times wasn't my time. I'm going to wait and I'm going to try to a sixth. And if the sixth doesn't happen, to the seventh."
For several years now, they have been careening toward each other with gathering speed. With Federer -- still the third-best player in the world -- aging gracefully, theirs has become the rivalry in tennis. It's already happened 28 times.
It is a compelling, complementary matchup: Rafa's forehand -- a hammer to the head -- is the deadliest stroke in game, while Djokovic's elastic court coverage represents the sport's best defense. They are likely to reprise this rivalry a few more times this summer, perhaps even in a few months in New York, where Rafa is the defending champion.
Djokovic, who will be going for his third major of the year, now holds a huge advantage in the area of mental superiority.
"Hopefully, we can have many more matches here at Wimbledon," Djokovic told the applauding crowd. "Thank you very much. See you next year."
He sounded like he meant it.
Djokovic's mother traced her son's success back to the Davis Cup title he helped win at the end of last season.
"Then he realized lots of things," Dijana said. "He matured and then he started to play as he played now.
"No fear. This is the point."
Djokovic laughed when his mother's quotes were related to him.
"Well, if my mother says that, then it's like that," he said. "There is nothing else I can say. My mother knows me better than I know myself.
"In a sentence, I lost my fear. I believed in my abilities more than ever."
Greg Garber is a senior writer for ESPN.com. Ravi Ubha also contributed to this story.
In many eyes, the Wimbledon final was the real battle for No. 1, and Novak Djokovic put an irrefutable end to any uncertainty.