What a year. What a run. What a player.
When Novak Djokovic swept all before him at the start of this year -- and even when he secured the world No 1 ranking by reaching yesterday's Wimbledon final -- the only major question the 24-year-old Serb still faced was whether he had it in him to claim the biggest prize of all.
He answered it in stunning fashion here yesterday, beating Rafael Nadal 6-4, 6-1, 1-6, 6-3 to claim the title he had dreamed of winning from his earliest days playing on a concrete court near his parents' pizzeria in Serbia's mountains. We knew Djokovic could beat anyone on hard courts and he had twice toppled Nadal, the king of clay, on his favourite territory, but this was glorious confirmation that he is a man for all seasons and all surfaces.
In becoming only the third man in the Open era, after Michael Stich and Andre Agassi, to win his first grass-court title here, Djokovic has mastered a form of tennis which had previously been his greatest challenge and extended his rule over an opponent who used to get the better of him on a regular basis. Nadal won 14 of his first 18 matches against Djokovic, but this was the Serb's fifth successive victory this year over the Spaniard -- all of them in finals. Indeed, Djokovic has suffered just one defeat since last November -- to Federer in the semi-finals of last month's French Open.
It is an astonishing turnaround in the world order of a game that had been utterly dominated by two men for the last six years.
When Federer beat Nadal in the final of the World Tour Finals in London little more than seven months ago, there seemed no end in sight to the rule of the two greatest players of recent times, but Djokovic has not only broken their duopoly but also risen above them.
During that time he has led Serbia to their first Davis Cup victory, won two Grand Slam titles to add to the Australian Open he won three years ago and established a big lead at the top of the world rankings. He takes over as No 1 today, ending a run of seven-and-a-half years in which only Federer and Nadal have held the top spot.
It was only the third defeat Nadal has suffered in 13 Grand Slam finals -- all three losses have been here on Centre Court -- and ended the defending champion's run of 20 successive victories at the All England Club. From Rory McIlroy to Padraig Harrington and from Bjorn Borg to John Newcombe, the crowd was full of men who know what it takes to win a Major. The Royal Box also contained the Serbian President, Boris Tadic.
On a warm afternoon with little breeze, conditions were perfect. The court, too, was in magnificent condition. Has Centre Court ever looked in better shape at the end of this fortnight?
The lack of any bare patches other than along the baseline told you everything about where the game is played these days.
Nevertheless, this was an occasion when Djokovic in particular showed he can volley at the net with the best of them. The Serb's relentlessly accurate ground strokes, driven with enormous power from the baseline, are his greatest asset, but this was an all-round display of excellence.
Djokovic's serve has been a weakness in the past, but here he was so confident in it that he even played occasional serve-and-volley.
Nadal, uncharacteristically, made too many mistakes, did not play the big points well and frequently hit the ball too short. Both players played superb tennis on occasions, but there were too many lengthy passages of play in which they were not at the top of their game at the same time to make it a classic.
Djokovic, however, has surely never played better than he did in the first two sets, in both of which he made just two unforced errors. Nadal also looked in excellent shape at the start, hitting huge forehand down-the-line winners on two of the first three points and even feeling confident enough to follow his serve into the net.
The Spaniard served superbly at the start, missing only five first serves in the first set but, crucially, three of them were on the last four points. There had been no break points until then, but as Nadal faltered Djokovic suddenly upped his game, just as he had at the same stage of a similarly close first set against Andy Murray in this year's Australian Open final. At 30-30, Nadal, attempting to run around his backhand after Djokovic had cracked a big return, put a forehand in the net. Another hammered return on the next point gave Djokovic the chance to put away a forehand winner to take the first set after 41 minutes.
Nadal had a whiff of a chance in the opening game of the second set, putting a smash long at 30-30, and was brutally punished for not taking it as Djokovic broke him twice in his next three service games. Some of the Serb's play was sensational as he hit the lines with a succession of blistering shots from both sides.
The point of the match saw Nadal hit a huge inside-out forehand down the line, only for Djokovic to crack it back with equal force for a glorious backhand cross-court winner.
There were times when Nadal, the great counter-attacker, must have felt he was looking in a mirror as Djokovic repeatedly turned defence into attack and forced him on to the back foot.
With the first two sets in the bag after just 74 minutes, Djokovic appeared to be coasting, but Nadal responded in the style of a champion. Djokovic played his worst game of the match when serving at the start of the second set, while Nadal went for broke on his returns. The outgoing world No 1 created his first break point when Djokovic, under attack, put a forehand wide and the stadium erupted when the Serb netted a limp backhand on the next point. Just as Djokovic had run away with the second set, so Nadal did with the third. Djokovic, looking rattled for the first time, dropped his serve again at 4-1 with his first double-fault of the match and Nadal promptly served out for the set.
Could Nadal, the ultimate competitor, become the first man to win a Wimbledon final from two sets down for 84 years? He had the momentum, but was unable to maintain it, dropping serve after a succession of loose shots in the second game of the fourth set. He broke back immediately, courtesy of a chipped return that struck the top of the net and dropped stone-dead on Djokovic's side, but at 3-4 played his worst service game of the match.
Nadal's first double-fault of the afternoon, two ragged backhands and a netted forehand following some astonishing defence from Djokovic, gave the Serb the chance to serve for the match. A nervy forehand on the first point suggested he was tightening up, but at 30-30 he rediscovered the confidence to set up match-point by playing serve-and-volley, after which Nadal put a backhand long to hand the Serb victory.
The new champion fell on his back in celebration and, after embracing Nadal at the net, sank to his knees, plucked a piece of grass and placed it in his mouth. Victory has never tasted sweeter. (© Independent News Service)