It’s getting to the point where whenever Novak Djokovic gets down two sets at a Grand Slam, he’ll be an even bigger favorite than he was at the start of a match. If he isn’t already.
For the seventh time in his career, Djokovic pulled off the feat yesterday at Wimbledon, hoodwinking future star Jannik Sinner into the impostor of hope before yanking it away in a 5-7 2-6 6-3 6-2 6-2 advancement to the semifinals. Djokovic had looked completely spent in the second set after blowing a 4-1 lead in the first. It’s rare that he looks tired and out of sorts, given that he’s one of the fittest people on the planet. You can almost always count on Djokovic to get to most everything, even if his shotmaking goes off the boil for a bit. But that wasn’t the case in the second set, when he actually looked 35 and gave everyone around that age a glimmer of hope that it does indeed come for everyone.
The look of lethargy shouldn’t have fooled us, and perhaps Sinner knew what was coming as even though he was playing incredibly well, he got nervy in the third set. It seems like everyone does when playing Djokovic, wondering where the bear trap is as they lead the way. Each step becomes even more cautious the closer they get to victory. It’s yet another mental pall that the Serbian casts over his opponents. Sinner is going to be a big-time thing one day, with his elephant gun of a forehand and mobility. But that day keeps getting dragged away by Djokovic and Nadal in the cruelest tease in tennis as they refuse to cede the game to anyone else.
The other pall cast, and the reason Djokovic is so primed to make these kinds of comebacks, is that his game generally doesn’t need a lot of tweaking to get back on track. Whereas others might need to recover a lot of ground to rediscover their shotmaking and hit lines and winners galore, or someone like Nadal has to tap into a reserve of energy and fury that might not always be there physically, Djokovic’s game isn’t built on that foundation. He’s capable of all that, but Djokovic’s greatness rests on just being clean and simple, with a metronomic array of groundstrokes that land a foot or less from the baseline and simply push his opponents off the court or tempt them to try and riskily time their shots off the bounce. That leads to a lot of shanks and sprays and short balls that Djokovic can pounce on.
Djokovic was clean in a most smothering fashion in the match’s last three sets, with only three unforced errors in the third and fifth sets. When Djokovic is that clean, the rallies drag out, the muscles burn, the mind flattens, and Djoker only gets stronger sensing the wilting across the net from him. And then he runs down everything, and turns from defense to offense instantly when he does.
There’s also the matter of being the best returner of all-time, so there are no easy points anywhere to be found, and you can sense the opponent drowning amongst all the shots they have to hit. Sinner had one ace in the final two sets, which might help explain how he was broken twice in each.
Djokovic is able to come back simply because he just remains standing there. Even when things go right for someone for two sets, the next three sets will be filled with shots returning to him within touching distance of his feet until he’s pushed back to stepping on the lines people’s toes. And no matter what opponents come up with, Djokovic gets to it and sends it right back with depth. You can fire everything at him with everything you have for as long as you can, and when the dust clears he’s still there, right where he was, dusting off his shoulder. No matter how down he looks at times, he’s only one game or one shot away from finding the immovable object level that he’s been for a decade or more.
While coming back from two sets down sounds and looks like a major turn around and turning a match upside down, for Djokovic it’s merely a minor adjustment of the dials. It’s a tweak, a nudge, which is why he’s the most prone to do it. And now his opponents know it’s coming, which means whether Djokovic is leading or trailing in a match, his opponent’s knees are knocking. They know just as much as we do that he’s never more than an arm’s length from finding it and just being there, immovable and impenetrable.