At last year’s French Open, Rafael Nadal finally equalled his long-time rival Roger Federer. Nadal had been trailing Federer their entire careers, but the Spaniard had been hot on his rival’s heels. Chasing both, though–and rapidly gaining since his career revival in 2011–has been Novak Djokovic.
When the 2011 season begin, Federer had 17 Major titles. He had broken Pete Sampras’ record of 14 at Wimbledon in 2009. Nadal, meanwhile, had only nine titles–but he has been a near-guarantee to take the French Open every year. In fact, of his 11 Majors since then, eight have come in Paris (the other three were at the US Open). Djokovic, meanwhile, began that season with a mere one Grand Slam title. Since then, he has now won 19 of the 42 Majors held (there was no Wimbledon tournament last year due to COVID). For the 11th year running now, Djokovic has been one of the most dominant forces men’s tennis has ever seen.
After winning his second French Open a month ago–including winning an all-time classic over Nadal–Djokovic entered Wimbledon heavily favored. In fact, with the way he’s playing, especially in the biggest events, Djokovic is considered by many a favorite to win the Calendar Grand Slam this year. No man has won all four Majors in a year since Rod Laver in 1969, but no man has been as dominant as Djokovic on all surfaces since, well, Rod Laver in 1969.
To win Wimbledon and match his rivals, though, one final challenge stood in his way. Rising Italian Matteo Berrettini was searching for his first Major title, and has all the skills to beat anyone on grass. Could he stop Djokovic, though? He put up a fight, but as we found out on Centre Court on Sunday, it wasn’t enough to stop Djokovic.
Novak Djokovic vs Matteo Berrettini
The match began as a nervous affair. Djokovic hit two double faults in the opening service game, and really should have been broken. Berrettini was just as tense as his opponent, though, and couldn’t freely hit the ball cleanly. The Italian gave away the break a few games later, but after holds from each both seemed to ease into their games. Berrettini served big and hit huge, especially off the forehand, while Djokovic kept the ball deep, maneuvered his way through points, and drew errors from his opponent.
Djokovic had a break in hand in the first set, and looked poised to run away with it. A marathon game with Berrettini serving at 2-5 (in which he saved a set point) seemed to really stabilize the Italian. He earned the break back with some strong baseline play, then followed up to force a tiebreak. In the tiebreak, Djokovic seemed to hang back. He was more than willing to let the Italian control the points and hit the errors, trusting his defensive game and the Italian’s nerves. Berrettini wasn’t nervous, though, and took the tiebreak 7-4 with some impressive hitting.
The second set restored normal order, though. Djokovic broke to open the set, then he broke again. A few strong service games gave the World #1 a 4-0 lead. At 5-1, though, Djokovic failed to serve out a set for the second time in the match. After Berrettini held form 0-40 down int he following game, it looked like we might see a repeat of the first set. Djokovic showed no such problems, though, and he hit strong first serves to take the set and level the match.
Third and Fourth Sets
The third set, like the first two, saw Djokovic earn an early break of serve. Berrettini tried to fight back, finding break point opportunities and making Djokovic fight for his service games. The Serbian fought through all challenges, though, and held serve four times to win his second consecutive 6-4 set. Novak Djokovic was now just one set away from equalling his rivals.
Berrettini’s serve stayed huge all match, which kept him in it and kept the final compelling. There were few moments where it felt like Berrettini had any control or advantage in the match. But the huge serve meant there were also few moments where he felt out of it. The Italian was always just within reach, and any drop in Djokovic’s level was there to be exploited.
That drop came midway through the fourth set, when Berrettini won the first two points with Djokovic serving at 2-3. The Serbian responded by winning an absolutely insane point, probably the best of the tournament.
The Italian still didn’t show nerves, responding by hitting huge serves and backing them up when needed. But he just couldn’t keep up when Djokovic upped his level yet again. Even with the crowd firmly behind the Italian, Djokovic played two amazing points to open a break point chance. Berrettini finally cracked, hitting a double fault. The Serbian was now just two holds away from history.
Berrettini played a great point to open the next game, but it was all Djokovic from there. Good serves and smart play earned the hold, and the tension mounted. Djokovic was one game away. Berrettini’s game stayed consistent, but Djokovic was just too good. Strong returns and baseline play kept the Italian off balance. Berretteni fought hard, saving two match points–but not the third. Novak Djokovic broke for the match, finally catching up to his rivals with a 6-7(4) 6-4 6-4 6-3 victory.
This is not the time or place to debate who is the Greatest of All Time, even if we want to give that title to one man. For now, it is just the moment to appreciate that the three most accomplished men in history are all standing side-by-side on the Grand Slam pedestal–with 20 apiece. Will one of them break that tie at the US Open in September? We’ll cross that bridge in two months, I guess.
Embed from Getty Images