As the fourth set of Sunday’s Wimbledon final hung in the balance for whoever had the courage to take it, Matteo Berrettini made his move while leading 3-2, 15-30 on Novak Djokovic’s serve. He struck an exquisite down-the-line backhand slice, then unloaded on an inside-out forehand into the other corner. The crowd gasped, anticipating the end of the point. But somehow Djokovic chased down both shots. Then he reached Berrettini’s subsequent drop shot, slotting an angled forehand past the Italian at the net.
It was the type of point that has defined Djokovic for so long – the movement, the flexibility and the composure to see out the point with such delicate touch at the end. As the fourth set wore on, it became the definitive moment of the match as Djokovic took the final four games to win his 20th grand slam title.
The defensive talents of Djokovic have always been his most distinctive quality, but the focus on these strengths can sometimes be detrimental to the overall understanding of his game. He is constantly likened to a wall and a machine, which does not reflect the breadth of his abilities.
For example, his dominance at Wimbledon is often rationalised as a reflection of the slowing of the surface since 2002. This has certainly ushered in a new era of baseline supremacy, squeezing out serve-and-volley players, but Djokovic has adapted his own game to suit the characteristics of grass in a way that many others have not.
The steady improvement of his serve over the years, which has flourished even more since he hired Goran Ivanisevic as his coach, has been startling andat Wimbledon he mixed up his game. In important moments during his semi-final against Denis Shapovalov and in the final, Djokovic snuck into the net and chose a number of unexpected serve-and-volley attempts well, clinching numerous important points with calm volleys.
He finished with 76% of net points won, 144 van 190 punte, which ranks him No 1 of those who reached week two. Djokovic attempted to serve and volley on 41 of his 618 punte, 7% of his total points played. The average serve-and-volley rate for male players at Wimbledon this year was 4%. Djokovic won 88% of those serve-and-volley points, Geen 1 among those with more than 10 attempts.
According to Ivanisevic, people still underestimate the quality of his player’s volleys: “He is not a serve-and-volleyer. He’s never going to be a serve-and-volleyer [maar] he likes to play doubles. He has very solid volleys. He improved his serve. When he’s against Shapo, he was serve [and volleying] a lot because he felt great at the net.”
Not all facets of Djokovic’s game seamlessly translates to television. The spectacle of him constantly deflecting service bombs to the laces of his opponents is most stunning in person, as is how he keeps his opponents off balance with subtle changes of shot pace, spin, slice and direction, something not as visible from the distant camera angle. Djokovic’s ability to morph into whatever is required on any given day, to grind with Rafael Nadal on slow clay and then to go serve for serve with the best on faster surfaces, remains a unique, underrated attribute.
Djokovic has equalled Nadal and Roger Federer on 20 grand slam titles by becoming one of the most complete players the sport has seen. Even during points in the tournament when he did not play well but won the big points and advanced, his assuredness was clearly rooted in how many options he has and how he has no real weaknesses to be exploited: “I feel like I’m probably the most complete that I’ve been as a player,” he said on Sunday.
As he continues to win grand slam titles at an unprecedented rate in his thirties, these qualities will put him in the best position of being able to sustain his game, even as his athleticism continues to wane. Even as some of those improbable defensive shots no longer find their way back over the net.