Photo: Ben Curtis (AP)

A fatless and notably tall-headed man going by the name “Novak Djokovic” spent a lot of his time on tennis courts over the last 18-odd months, and succeeded even in being granted entry to some important professional tournaments. There he beat some solid tennis players, even though, off the court, his emotional world seemed to be disintegrating. Mostly this Novak Djokovic spent a lot of time running around and bonking a ball into the safe middle of the court. He physically resembled the Novak Djokovic who dominated the sport just two years ago, but played like a man who faintly remembered how to win at this game but had been hollowed out of all the conviction needed to do it. He made adjustments. His coaching staff bothered him, so he banished all of them, test-drove Andre Agassi for a bit, then brought the old coaches back. His elbow bothered him badly enough for a self-imposed exile but also only bad enough for an ambiguous “medical intervention.”

Every few weeks this Novak Djokovic would gift some younger or lower-ranked player the single best day of his career, starting with bespectacled Denis in Australia last year, then slight David a few months later. This year, young Chung got his in Australia. Even Taro got a piece of Novak in the Californian desert. Kooky-ass Benoit kept his shit together just long enough to earn his gold star in Miami. The obscure Marco had his day in the sun last month in Paris. Tennis players lose all the time, but the man who looked so strikingly like Novak Djokovic was playing under a very famous name, one shared by a man who had possibly played the single best season of tennis ever, and won a dozen majors, and strung together all four in a row as recently as 2016. So people both noticed and cared when he lost. And this Novak Djokovic was handing out glorious upsets like fistfuls of candy. He publicly toyed around with the idea of sitting out the grass season altogether.

That man was not the Novak Djokovic that appeared on the tennis court last Friday, Saturday, or Sunday. That one was gone—back on his home planet, at the bottom of the English Channel, wherever. Last weekend, in a Wimbledon semifinal waylaid by a match that was its exact tactical and aesthetic opposite, that old, disappeared Novak Djokovic returned to play the No. 1 player in the world Rafael Nadal, and looked something like his stubborn equal. Who is this man who strong-armed Rafa from the baseline, and where did he go off to for so long?

One set in I’d already begun to levitate. This match was an old vintage, straight out of that turn-of-the-decade era when tennis looked far freakier than it does today, a time that forever warped my expectations of what the sport could be. And here it was again, or almost. Tennis at that rarefied level can send someone starved of it into dumb, grateful gibbering. If this is not the highest-level tennis match played on Earth anytime in the last 36 months, then I have been missing out on some truly hallucinatory experiences.

Advertisement

Men’s tennis has settled into an unexpected monotony over the last two seasons. There have been some compelling individual matches in there, if probably not enough to stave off boredom as the Roger-Rafa Show got stuck on the television. That rivalry blew past the exit for Inspiring Revival and, as it became clear that no one else could really hang with them, hurtled on into Numbing Duopoly. The two won six straight majors, taking turns trading off victories. It began at the 2017 Australian Open, in a final that was a cosmic event in the sport and an instant if imperfect classic. At a narrative level, it was irresistible: the sport’s most famous rivals, both back from long absences and each under suspicion of being washed, were suddenly doing convincing imitations of their prime selves. That Australian final had its brilliant passages of play, but in truth it also had dead spots and mismatched sets where one player was clicking and the other wasn’t, until both players surged in synchrony for the decider set. It was a potent nostalgia bomb and it absolutely entertained the crap out of me, but it would be hard to say with a straight face that it was five sets of tennis played at the very highest level. That’s a superlative I would aim more comfortably aim at this Djokovic-Nadal semifinal, which was the 52nd(!) installment in a rivalry that, in pure tennis terms, has always been the superior one. I say this as one of most shameless partisans you’ll ever find, but I’m not completely sure Fed was standing on the court when men’s tennis reached its peak.

It’s not just about how Rafa and Novak’s ages match up more evenly, though that is part of it. It has to do with specifically how they push each other. It’s a generic sports trope that great players make each other greater, but in tennis that musty iron-sharpens-iron platitude seems more straightforwardly true—a great player, and in particular a great baseline mover, forces his opponent to hit even greater shots. When such players match up, the angle and pace and overall ambition of every shot is ratcheted way up.

Anyone who has watched these two players closely knows not to take that level of ambitious shot-making as a given. When a titan like Rafa faces a lesser opponent, he can afford to breathe a little, to play just a little safer. Send the opponent scrambling wide, say, and then comfortably hit the ball down the line three feet from any paint; when you have the advantage of being Rafael Nadal, the targets are bigger and there’s no need to flirt too much with the lines. Against a restored Novak Djokovic, though, the target might be the left edge of a particular blade of grass. There is no space for conservatism or tact. Watch the video above: the Serbian is a baseline terror, and there is probably no human more up to the task of meeting him at that level, in 2018, than Rafa. The angles—shots ripping out of the corner of the service box, shots leaping down the line from well off the court—that they’re attempting are insane, precisely because they have to be. Both men intimately understand how difficult it is to hit the ball somewhere that would even bother the other. They adjust accordingly.

Advertisement

None of the reliable patterns of play that generally prevail in tennis—serve out wide, forehand into the opposite corner—can be taken for granted, here. None of the familiar rhythms of a match really hold true, either. As a rule, the serve is largely thought to set up a point favorable for the one delivering it. But when Rafa, a solid server, delivers the ball to probably the best returner in tennis history, he knows there are no free points coming his way; he knows that Djokovic will return the ball faster and somehow deeper in the court than any ordinary player would have managed. Well before he even tosses the ball in the air, Rafa knows that Novak’s humping the baseline, settling into his return stance totally wild-eyed, hungry to twitch up off the grass and flail at a ball and send it thundering back to his feet. Even against Roger—who has beaten him four straight times and is apparently a puzzle he no longer knows how to solve—this is not exactly Rafa’s expectation. This familiar feeling of dread is a Djokovic-specific dilemma. He is everywhere, and he will run with you all day. He takes the air out of the room.

By the second set, Djokovic has started to scream aloud and scowl at his box, drawing on his old ire in his old way. Rafa has stayed the stoic same. Their output on court was still ridiculous: see those points above. Save one genius drop volley, Djokovic does not appear to hit a single ball that bounces before the service line. He is confidently tenderizing the lawn in front of the Rafa’s baseline. For Rafa to win, as he does in the last point above, he almost literally plays the ball into three corners of the court. Upper right, upper left—then forcing a sprint along the court’s longest diagonal—lower right. Novak’s fanatical pressure on return earned him six break points, but he only managed to convert one; Rafa got two of his three and took the set.

Advertisement

Novak Djokovic has one distinctive design feature, and it’s not a secret. Look at any still image of him in competition, like those three above, from this match. His body seems somehow more likely to adopt poses of artistic contortion than athletic composure. He is always out there looking like some kind of dramatically undone paperclip. It’s my defining image of Djokovic at his prime: splayed out in a near-split, both knees and both ankles somehow inches away from the grass, and yet the ball is not just flying back but flying back with pace.

That is the real marvel here, what Novak is capable of at the very farthest limits of his physical range—not just retrieving the ball to prolong the point, but smacking it back with intent to end it. Where does the pop, the propulsion, even come from? His joints are miracles. You might find it difficult to slap someone in the face when they’re not within an arm’s length, but somehow Novak could just muster some extra flex out of his wrist and knock them cold. He just seems to be made of different materials than everyone else.

The third-set tiebreak was a mid-match swell, bringing the shot-making to ecstatic new highs. Both players ambushed the other with drop shots as respite from the baseline thrashing. Rafa had two set points but blew both forehand returns. Djokovic won out. Wimbledon stuck to its strict 11 p.m. curfew and sent both players home after that third set, only to conclude the match the next day and, bizarrely, delay the women’s final.

Advertisement

The interruption didn’t tamp down the quality of play for these two. When Rafa and Novak returned to the grass the next morning, they produced another exceptional set that resembled the second in shape: again Rafa won, again converting two breaks on three chances to Novak’s one in six. Once again it ended only after a comical number of absurd rallies. Tempers flared under duress. Djokovic, who so nakedly wants to be loved at match’s end, does not much care what you think of him during it, and he did not mind getting ugly on the court, as he has regularly this Wimbledon. He bludgeoned his own foot with his racket in frustration; he hooted out provocations to the other camp.

The final set, with no tiebreak in sight, was a bizarro version of the other men’s semifinal, and a balm to anyone traumatized by it. Win-by-two is not so painful when each service game actually feels like a sincere contest and not a foretold conclusion. This one could have happily gone to 26-24. Rafa got five looks at a break, to no avail. Djokovic, finally, managed a break at love in the 18th game to win this match, and effectively the title, 6-4, 3-6, 7-6(9), 3-6, 10-8. Even with full knowledge of the outcome you could watch the whole thing front-to-back like a movie.

Advertisement

The actual final, which was played the very next day, was an afterthought. Kevin Anderson did well to make it that far, passing several brutal endurance test and dispatching Federer, but he was ill-equipped for the event itself and transparently no match for the old Novak Djokovic, who defeated Anderson in straight sets, because he is the one who wins majors. He is the one with thirteen of them, now just one rampaging Djokovic-style season away from elbowing his way into the all-time debate. He’s the one with winning records against both GOAT candidates, who is now surely making both of them reconsider their rosy projections for their late-career reigns. He is easy to spot.

With the old Djokovic back, things are different. Roger and Rafa have lorded over a soft field, but their carefree frolics through draws will now be more likely to hit a familiar old wall. For the sake of the game and competition and curiosity about what all three of those men can will their bodies to do a tennis court, it’s good to have to that wall back.