Not all first-time Grand Slam winners are prepared for success, but the Serb looks like he is, writes Rohit Brijnath
Novak Djokovic did not surprise us, his triumph was no precocious feat, his ascension to champion is no fluke. This man owns a humming backhand down the line that deserves its own textbook, a wide serve that is all angled precision, has footwork a choreographer might applaud, and goes to the net not just to shake hands. This man reached Grand Slam semifinals on grass and clay last year, a Slam final on hardcourt, he has paid his dues and done his homework and found his nerve. This man was ready to meet his moment.
It is why he will win again. Maybe even in June in Paris, or July in London, or September in New York. Surely next year. Not that Mr. Federer is trembling, or Mr. Nadal will simply make way, but the Serb is that good, that versatile, that ready. And first-time Grand Slam title winners rarely are.
Djokovic is 20, Federer when he won Wimbledon in 2003 he was 22. Younger men have climbed the summit before them. That fellow with the rude serve called Boris won Wimbledon at 17. Stefan Edberg grabbed the Australian Open title in 1985 at 19, and a fellow of the same age nicknamed ‘Pistol’ shot down the opposition at the US Open in 1990. But not all went well thereafter for a while.
Slam and after
Becker’s athletic aggression suited Wimbledon’s slick grass, but he was emotionally, and technically, still an unfinished construction.
Grand Slam titles alter lives substantially, and it is first exciting, then suffocating, and Becker the boy struggled with his new world, even wearing outrageous wigs in a bid to find anonymity. His game, too, was only finding itself, and his first Slam outside grass would arrive four years later at the Australian Open in 1989.
Of Sampras, men would later acclaim his devotion to winning, but once the American found winning a burden. In 1990, 28 days past his 19th birthday, he dismantled Lendl, McEnroe, Agassi in succession, but in his mind he had never contemplated the new life he had to live.
Stardom is no curse, but it takes some wearing. So throttled by fame and expectation was Sampras that the following year, 1991, he lost in the quarterfinals at the US Open, and said he was relieved, as if a “bag of bricks just came off my shoulders.”
His comment incensed Jimmy Connors, who retorted: “That’s the biggest crock of dump! Being the US Open champion is what I’ve lived for.”
Worse was to come. Having reached the US Open final again in 1992, against Edberg, Sampras admittedly gave up in the fourth set. “I packed it in,” he reportedly once said. “I was satisfied with getting to the finals. In the following days and months, I was unbelievably upset with myself. It changed my outlook on competition. Never be satisfied.” In 1993, three years after his first Slam, he won his second at Wimbledon.
Djokovic’s life altered with the 258th point at the Open on Sunday. Thereafter every eye, in Australia and beyond, was on him. It will stay that way for a while for nothing intrigues like the unwrapped hero, the fresh champion. He will be gushed over, photographed, deified, his cheeks will ache with smiling and hands go numb with shaking. People will say we knew you had the right stuff, and excitable others will tell him Federer is done, and through it all he will have to keep his balance, maintain his composure. And play some divine tennis.
Djokovic will stumble now and then, but he looks a man who has spent his entire life preparing for this challenge. As a boy he saw the rubble of war and it will give him perspective as a man. He has a thirst for life and an ache for winning, he holds respect for Federer but no longer a fear.
No doubt the Serb is only in the early stages of his quest for greatness while the Swiss has redefined the word, and while he will lose to Federer still, a psychological barrier has been breached. Novak Djokovic believes in himself. And his game has eloquently told us that.