Sunday 15 December 2019

Djokovic primed to reign supreme

Serb must see off Nadal to justify No 1 status, writes Mark Hodgkinson

There is no grand ceremony, or cocktails on Henman Hill, when men's tennis gets a new world No 1, just an updated list on a website, and the off-chance of a photo opportunity. Today Rafael Nadal is atop the rankings; tomorrow he will be replaced by Novak Djokovic, regardless of what happens on Centre Court this afternoon.

On most other weekends of the tennis calendar, such a switch in the rankings would be the biggest event in town, but not at the business end of the Wimbledon fortnight. Djokovic's elevation will formally end the Nadal and Roger Federer era, as those two have shared the ranking between them for the last seven years.

But should Djokovic lose to Nadal in the Serbian's first appearance in a Wimbledon final, the morning that he officially becomes the best tennis player in the world will be a strangely empty moment. In years to come, few will recall whether Djokovic moved to the first line of the leaderboard the next day, just whether he was the champion or the beaten finalist.

As Djokovic put it, for the new ranking to "really mean something", he must today fend off the man he is succeeding. On the other side of the net, Nadal could put himself level with Bjorn Borg and Rod Laver on 11 Grand Slams, and tomorrow the computer would be informing everyone that the Majorcan is no longer the alpha male of this racket-swinging tribe.

The neatest possible finish to this tournament would be for Djokovic to leave London with both a replica trophy and the No 1 ranking in his hand-luggage. There can be no doubt, though, that Djokovic already deserves to be No 1, as he has won 47 of the 48 matches he has played this season, with his only defeat of the year coming against Federer in a French Open semi-final. If Djokovic had won that match at Roland Garros, he would have started this grass court Slam as No 1. The rankings are based on results from the last 52 weeks, not just from events at this fortnight in south-west London.

If it had not been for Wimbledon -- his first memory of tennis was watching this tournament on television when he was four or five -- Djokovic would probably now be schussing down the slopes of the Serbian mountains, after becoming a professional skier like his father.

Djokovic already has two Slam titles, after winning the Australian Open in 2008 and again this January, but this title would mean even more. Ever since he saw Centre Court on the small screen, he has considered Wimbledon to be the biggest tournament in the world.

Djokovic's matches with Nadal have been some of the defining contests of this season, even if the man from the Balkans has won all of them.

Nadal and Djokovic have been the best two players this season, and so it is entirely fitting that the pair will contest the final of the most important tournament in tennis. If their baseline exchanges are anything like the rallies from their four previous meetings this year, this final should be entertaining.

No one should imagine that there was an inevitability that these two would come through the draw, as they have not had everything their own way. The strongest image from last weekend's tennis was of Djokovic trashing his racket on the Centre Court grass during his third-round match against Marcos Baghdatis, and he had some trying moments during his quarter-final against the Australian qualifier Bernard Tomic and during his semi-final.

To win this final, Djokovic must beat someone who has not lost on these lawns since 2007, when Nadal finished as the runner-up to Federer. Nadal is riding a 20-match undefeated streak at the All England Club as he was the champion in 2008, missed the 2009 tournament because of pain in both knees, and held up the trophy again last summer. Djokovic has never beaten Nadal on grass, as he retired from their semi-final here in 2007 because of infected blisters in his toe, and also lost in the final of the 2008 Queen's Club tournament.

Those are Nadal's advantage in this match, that and the fact he has experience of these occasions, with this being his fifth Wimbledon final.


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