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Bud Collins

No joke, Wimbledon title goes to Djokovic

By Bud Collins
July 4, 2011

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LONDON - When Novak Djokovic - certainly the first citizen of Serbia now - was but a 12-year-old, he was more concerned about the bombing of his hometown than what happened on its few scruffy tennis courts.

“But I had this dream about a place called Wimbledon. And hoped. The [NATO] planes usually bombed at the same times, and we went to cellars then. But it was still scary,’’ he said. “I was lucky that my parents got enough money together to send me away, to a tennis academy in Germany.’’ He was homesick, so he returned to Serbia as often as possible.

The rest was determination and doubly hard work through difficult times for the boy from Belgrade, who yesterday made the Wimbledon dream make sense. Djokovic’s steaming attacks from the baseline forced the great Rafael Nadal to struggle to stay in points. Usually Nadal didn’t, losing his bid for a third Wimbledon crown, 6-4, 6-1, 1-6, 6-3, in 2 hours 28 minutes.

Djokovic was just as swift as the favored, title-holding Spaniard, and he was banging line drives all over the famed Centre Court lawn whenever he got to the ball. Forehands and double-barreled backhands. It was too often for Nadal, who retrieved at times sensationally, but the Serb’s heavy hitting crowded him to play short, open to more flat thunder.

“Yes, I didn’t play long enough. Didn’t make the big, important points,’’ said a gracious but downcast Nadal. “No, I’m not happy with my Wimbledon. I lost my title and [the world] No. 1.’’

Nadal pointed out that Djokovic is hardly a secret. “He’s in my head. He knows it, I know it, you know it. Everybody knows it,’’ said Nadal. “Five times he’s beaten me this year [the finals of the Italian Open, Indian Wells, Key Biscayne, Madrid, and here]. I’ve got to rest my mind and body, and find a solution.

“I’m used to being the first. But now I’m second, and Djokovic is first. Got to go back to work. Harder.’’

Nobody works harder than Nadal. But how many athletes would talk openly about a prime rival, who is “in my head?’’ Very rare.

Nadal didn’t even see a break point until the second game of the third set. That stoked the boisterous 14,979 in the seats, mainly his supporters. They had hope for a five-set climax with Nadal securing his 11th major, and got louder when he won the third set.

As customary, a military band, The Central Band of the Royal British Legion, serenaded the crowd before the match. But the music really stopped for Nadal in the opening game of the fourth. He had a break point that might have been a comeback foundation. But Djokovic saved it with a stunning smash of a lob.

Was Djokovic choking a bit in losing the third set? “No, I just let myself relax, but I got back on focus soon enough,’’ he said. So he did. It was soon over as Nadal’s forehand collapsed in the second game of the fourth.

“Every athlete dreams of being No. 1,’’ Djokovic said. “When you do it at last, and you know you’re the best, it’s just an amazing achievement. But it was a little bit frustrating. When you get to the final stages of a tournament you run into Nadal and [Roger] Federer. They were winning everything. They always came up with their best tennis when it matters the most. But it’s a process of learning. Developing and improving as a player and person, just finding the way to mentally overcome those pressures and expectations.

“I always believed I had the quality to beat those guys, win majors [he has three now, two Australians to go with Wimbledon]. After the first Australian Open, the first major in 2008, I was 21 and started getting pressures to do better, expectations that I’d never faced. I had crisis periods, didn’t know if I could make it because these two guys were so dominant.

“My mother told a reporter that Serbia winning the Davis Cup [he won two singles matches] taught me how to play without fear. She knows me better than myself. I lost my fears. I believed in my abilities more than ever.’’

Because of the Balkan wars, Serbia hasn’t been one of the more popular countries. But the tennis success may offer some PR help.

Djokovic said, “There wasn’t much interest in tennis, but we’re changing that.’’ Serbia’s president, Boris Tadic, was clapping proudly in the front row. Djokovic probably could have that job if he were interested.

Suddenly quick changes in tennis. Not long ago, people were boosting Federer as the greatest player of all time. But he couldn’t beat Nadal. Then Nadal ascended and he can’t beat Djokovic. Who is next? Should be a colossal US Open.

Djokovic even pulled off a serve-and-volley point - seldom seen here these days - to take himself from 30-30 to match point, and startling Nadal. Djokovic’s 43-match winning streak has passed, but not too bad is his current record: 50-1 for the year.

Then Djokovic, who never cared for grass courts, cut through Centre Court like a Japanese beetle. When he had won, he felt he should come down to earth and eat a celebratory snack - a handful of Wimbledon grass. “It tasted good, well kept,’’ said the young man in his salad days.