WIMBLEDON, England — While the French Open has long been Rafael Nadal’s time, Wimbledon has become Novak Djokovic’s time.
He is not yet the greatest grass-court player of this Darwinian era of men’s tennis. Roger Federer, 40, absent from this year’s tournament, still gets that nod with his eight singles titles at the All England Club. But Djokovic, who used to pose with a homemade replica of the winner’s trophy in his youth, has certainly been the best in recent years with his acrobatic, tight-to-the-base style, and he is undoubtedly the greatest courter. on grass of the men’s court as the Wimbledon main draw begins on Monday.
“It’s hard not to make Novak the prohibitive favourite,” said Paul Annacone, one of Federer’s former coaches. “People talk about preparation and lack of matches and things like that, but the fact is when you’ve played Wimbledon so many times and been there so many times in the end, I don’t think it’s so important at all.”
Bjorn Borg, the stone-faced Swede, broke the mold in the build-up to Wimbledon, winning the event five times in a row from 1976 to 1980 without playing an official grass-court warm-up tournament. But the mold was mended and redeployed for almost 30 years before Djokovic broke it again, perhaps for good.
He has won five of his six Wimbledon titles – 2011, 2014, 2015, 2019 and 2021 – without playing a tune-up event on tour and will aim to do the same this year as he bids to win Wimbledon for the fourth consecutive time. .
“Every day you rest a bit and reset helps,” Djokovic said. “But then, we’re all different.”
Speaking about the grass courts, he added: “I didn’t have too many problems adapting to the surface quickly. Over the years, I have also learned to play more effectively on the surface. At the beginning of my career, I still had trouble moving and sliding.
Djokovic, who opens play on center court on Monday against unseeded South Korea’s Kwon Soon-woo, hasn’t played an official match since his deflating and frankly mystifying loss to Nadal in the French Open quarter-final. Djokovic had seemingly weathered the storm of Nadal’s thunderous start, but he failed to maintain his momentum and then lost a lead in the fourth and final set.
He spent time with his wife, Jelena, and two young children before arriving in London to play – and play very well – in last week’s lawn show at the Hurlingham Club.
Nadal followed the same pattern, racing against time to recover from radiofrequency ablation, which deadens nerves through the use of radio waves, to treat a left foot injury before playing – no so convincingly – at Hurlingham. Unlike arch-rival Djokovic, Nadal has never won Wimbledon without an official grass court tournament. His two titles, in 2008 and 2010, came after competing at Queen’s Club, and unlike Djokovic, Nadal hasn’t played at Wimbledon since 2019.
The tournament was canceled in 2020 due to the pandemic, and last year Nadal skipped it due to a chronic foot problem which remained his concern throughout his on-and-off magnificent 2022 campaign. He won the first two Grand Slam rounds: the Australian Open in January and then the French Open this month despite having to take painkiller injections to numb his left foot before the seven towers in Paris.
But he said on Saturday that the radio frequency treatment had eased his daily pain and given him the freedom to push off aggressively on his left foot, and there certainly seemed to be a spring in his step and an urgency in his mood as he was training over the weekend at the All England Club.
“First of all, I can walk normally most days, almost every day,” he said. “That is the main problem for me. When I wake up, I no longer have this pain that I had for a year and a half, so I’m pretty happy about it.
Look out, world, but even though Nadal has moved mountains in 2022, it will still be an uphill battle to match Djokovic’s level on grass.
They can only meet in the final as the tournament’s top two seeds, with first Daniil Medvedev and second Alexander Zverev missing. Medvedev, a Russian, is among the players excluded from Wimbledon this year due to the war in Ukraine. Zverev, a German, tore ligaments in his right ankle in his semi-final loss to Nadal at Roland Garros on June 3.
But there are still clear and significant threats to a Djokovic-Nadal rematch, which would be the Open Era’s 10th men’s duel in a Grand Slam final.
Hubert Hurkacz, a lovable Pole who upset Federer last year in the quarter-finals, is a genius on the grass court and thrashed Medvedev to win the title in Halle, Germany this month. He is in half of Djokovic’s table at Wimbledon. Matteo Berrettini, the mighty Italian who lost to Djokovic in last year’s Wimbledon final and is coming off turf tune-up events in Stuttgart, Germany, and the Queen’s Club, is in the half of Nadal’s pitch.
But Nadal, who faces unseeded Argentinian Francisco Cerundolo in the first round on Tuesday, could get a big early test if he faces Sam Querrey of the United States in the second round.
Querrey’s standings have slipped, but he remains dangerous on grass and is the last man to beat Djokovic in a finished match at Wimbledon, upsetting him in the third round in 2016 as Djokovic began a freefall that would last nearly two years.
Djokovic is in another difficult phase, partly of his making, by refusing, unlike all the other top male tennis players, to be vaccinated against Covid-19. This led to his expulsion from Australia in January ahead of the Australian Open and could keep him out of the US Open later this year unless the United States lifts its entry ban for unvaccinated foreigners.
“Of course I’m aware of that,” Djokovic said. “It’s an extra motivation to do well here. I hope I can have a very good tournament, as I have done in the last three editions. Then I will just have to wait and see. J would love to go to the US, but as of now it’s not possible.
He has only played 21 matches in 2022: fourteen fewer than he played at this same stage last season. But grass, once the main surface of professional tennis, is now an accessory and an acquired taste. Djokovic, who liked to gnaw on a blade of grass from center court after his Wimbledon titles, has clearly acquired it.
As the best returner in men’s tennis, he can always break the serve on a surface that favors the server. As the most flexible player in men’s tennis, he can bend into all sorts of positions to deal with the lower bounce on the grass. He can also close the baseline and also throw opponents off balance by serving and volleying from big points.
“It’s a rough recipe,” Annacone said. “And while we talk about his dominance on hard courts, his winning percentage is actually higher on grass.”
That’s right: His career singles winning percentage is 84% on hard courts, just slightly below his 85% on grass.
Now, in a downbeat season, it’s time for the legitimate Wimbledon favorite to try to widen that gap and close the gap to Nadal, who has 22 Grand Slam singles titles to Djokovic’s 20.