Novak Djokovic hasn’t won a trophy, any trophy, for over a year now. If he is to end that drought, a familiar stumbling block will need to be overcome this evening. Rafael Nadal and Djokovic have clashed an astonishing 51 times over their storied careers and the Serb only shades their head to head 26-25. Among those have been some of the modern era’s most bewitching contests, including the Wimbledon final in 2011 that Djokovic won in four sets.
Since capturing the French Open in 2016 to join an elite group of players to have won all four major trophies, Djokovic has endured an inexplicable slump. However, that extended phase of disappointing outcomes may be at an end and it isn’t just the casual observer that thinks so. Watching from his position as a TV pundit as he waits on his body to fully heal before returning to the circuit, Andy Murray is convinced the Djokovic of old is here again.
Even as the prospect of another Roger Federer versus Rafael Nadal summit clash got millions tingling with excitement around the world, Murray went on a limb to let the tennis world know – look closer at the Djoker. He is mended.
"I think Novak could beat both of them (Nadal & Federer), whether it happens or not, I don't know but he's playing really well," said Murray. “"He said the mental side has been difficult for him. Maybe he suffered from a slight dip in motivation, which is completely understandable after winning all four Slams, it takes an incredible amount out of you. It looks like he's back to where he wants to be. It wouldn't surprise me if he went on to win the tournament."
Now, there’s few on the modern tennis treadmill that get Djokovic quite as well as Murray does. They were born within days of each other in 1987 and have known and played against each other since they were teenagers. Since 2006, they have clashed 36 times as professionals and Murray has been on the wrong end of the result on 25 of those occasions. They are contrasting personality types – Djokovic, the ebullient imp and Murray, the self-confessed boring recluse. Friends they may not be, but there’s very little about each other’s craft as tennis players they do not fathom.
Andy Murray won’t be surprised if Novak Djokovic went on to “win the tournament.” Hmmm.
On Thursday, even as Federer succumbed to an inspired Kevin Anderson and Nadal survived a ferocious assault from Juan Martin del Potro, Djokovic dismantled Kei Nishikori on centre court in four sets in his quarterfinal. He hit more winners, 40-29, and committed fewer unforced errors, 21-34, to overcome the feisty Japanese also finding his feet back on the circuit after injury problems.
In five matches so far, the three-time Wimbledon champion has conceded just a couple of sets and the signs are all there that he’s “back where he wants to be”, as Murray noticed. Having reached the final at Queen’s in the build-up to Wimbledon before falling to Marin Cilic, Djokovic is now functioning smoothly on the grass and appears visibly to have rediscovered what John McEnroe describes as the “fire in his belly.”
In the clash against Nishikori, Djokovic rowed with the umpire over being warned for bouncing his racquet, chiding him for not cautioning Nishikori for a similar offence. He unleased throaty “come ons” from time to time, glared menacingly at his box and received two code violations. In the third-round clash against home boy Kyle Edmund, Djokovic accused the crowd of being “partisan” after he was booed. Not only has the verve and vigour returned to his play, the fiery competitiveness that made him one of modern sport’s most compelling athletes is showing up again.
"I like the level of tennis that I'm playing on right now," Djokovic said after defeating Nishikori. "I really do. I think with the performances I've had, I deserve to be in the semifinals. I don't want to stop here. I hope I can get a chance to fight for a trophy."
And fight he will have to. After a torrid run on grass over the last few years, Nadal has found the spunk again that delivered him two titles on these lawns. The near five-hour joust against del Potro in the quarterfinal may have drained him, especially as it comes on the back of a taxing clay court season, but the Spaniard has displayed multiple times in the past that he has an endless reservoir of competitive fuel. There will be no secrets between the men and both will arrive on court expecting to replicate the pugilism that has defined their contests in the past.
And Andy Murray will be watching. He reckons Djokovic can beat Nadal. He reckons Djokovic can win the tournament. He reckons the Novak Djokovic the world learnt to admire is back where he belongs. Who are we to doubt?