Wimbledon 2021: Novak Djokovic defeats Matteo Berrettini in four sets to retain title

·6-min read
Wimbledon 2021: Novak Djokovic defeats Matteo Berrettini in four sets to retain title

After a decade spent shattering records and clawing back shadows, no light can separate Novak Djokovic from legend any longer. In defeating Matteo Berrettini in four breathtaking sets that demanded all of his stubborn will and ingenuity, the world No 1 has finally equalled the grand slam record set by Roger Federer and Rafael Nadal, and moved one step closer to charting a legacy unrivalled in the men’s game, with only the Olympics and US Open standing between the Serbian and a golden slam.

To say his feat was assured, though, would severely understate the formidable assault by Berrettini, whose thunderous serving and lightning forehand stretched Djokovic’s defence to its most strained limits. The Italian, playing in his first grand slam final, briefly stuttered under the weight of expectation, trailing heavily in the first set only to mount a fearless and hostile comeback that even Djokovic struggled to subdue as Berrettini clinched a tiebreak.

But as on so many occasions before when Djokovic’s resolve was questioned, he dug into the well of resistance that has fuelled a decade of such uncompromising dominance. In each of the following sets, he met Berrettini’s power with unbreakable attrition, seized with ire on the crowd’s opposing roars, and refused to offer an ounce of mercy. In the key moments, in the face of an unstoppable force, Berrettini crumbled, and Djokovic brought the curtain down on this Wimbledon with a celebration now all too familiar: his arms raised aloft, with the air of history running between his fingers.

“It was more than a battle. First of all, huge congratulations to Matteo and his team on a great tournament and a tough match today,” he said on court afterwards. “It’s not the best feeling losing in the final, but there’s a great career ahead of you ... it’s just the beginning. Winning Wimbledon was always the big dream of mine when I was a kid and I have to remind myself how special this is and to not take this for granted. It’s a huge honour and a privilege.”

For all Djokovic’s superior experience on this stage, he was far from impervious to nerves as the roof peeled back over Centre Court and a capacity crowd made their presence felt. With a sixth title in tantalising reach, Djokovic’s defence started with two double faults and he was left staring down the barrel of a break point. But just as the tension had strangled Djokovic’s fluidity, it coursed through Berrettini’s limbs, too. The Italian moved heavily, lurched at the chance, and as quickly as it had sailed by, he was facing pressure on his own usually impenetrable serve.

Djokovic had to work hard against Berrettini, who wasn’t going to give up without a fight (AP)
Djokovic had to work hard against Berrettini, who wasn’t going to give up without a fight (AP)

It was a pattern that prevailed throughout much of the first set. At 0-30 on Djokovic’s serve, Berrettini hesitated over the simplest of forehands and another chance to break frittered away. Buoyed at seeing his rare chinks unpunished, Djokovic settled back into a more familiar groove and before long the cracks in Berrettini’s armour began to reveal themselves. Armed but also saddled by a heavyweight frame, Berrettini is a one-two puncher, his serve typically setting up a no less blistering forehand. But Djokovic’s infallible returning stifled that weapon, and the break came in the fourth game as Berrettini shanked at a drop shot.

It seemed as though Djokovic was rampaging down a clear path to history, but Berrettini soon proved he was far from a passenger. By holding firm in a titanic 11-minute back-and-forth game on his serve, the Italian was able to shake out all the nervous tension in his armoury. The doubts extinguished, he found freedom in the longer rallies, relied on his power to dictate the tempo, and went toe-to-toe with almost gladiatorial impudence. And when he scampered to the net to meet Djokovic’s volley and somehow flick a forehand down the line, he had resurrected that which had long been considered dead. They went to a tiebreak and, under a renewed and even more potent avalanche of forehands, Djokovic succumbed.

With a fire ignited by his own frustration, Djokovic delivered a merciless response in the second set, breaking Berrettini’s serve twice as he drew on all his variety and artifice to tame his opponent’s power. Leading 4-0, it had become something of a procession, but even if there was to be no comeback, the Italian did still seize on a high-octane point to galvanise his hopes. Leading 40-0 on serve, a drop shot drew Djokovic into the net, and his inch-perfect lob sent Berrettini scampering backwards with his tail, and then his racquet, between his legs. The tweener sailed over Djokovic, who attempted one of his own to no avail. The crowd were ecstatic, Berrettini played conductor and demanded an encore, and even Djokovic allowed a smile to replace his permanently seething expression. And in the following game, Berrettini defied those who claim his game is based on brute force with the deftest touch of his own, sinking to the grass at deuce to kill all the pace off a passing shot with an exquisite backhand volley that even drew applause from Djokovic as his serve was broken. There was to be no repeated collapse, though. At the next opportunity, the defending champion held his nerve and closed out the set to love.

Berrettini had already recorded more than 100 aces in the tournament (EPA)
Berrettini had already recorded more than 100 aces in the tournament (EPA)

To understand quite how impressive Djokovic’s elastic returning and agile recoveries were in the third set, it’s important to remember quite how unstoppable Berrettini had been up until this afternoon. Prior to this match, he had already recorded over 100 aces in the tournament, and Djokovic was having to contort his body to unnatural degrees just to keep points alive. In doing so, though, he was able to turn this final into a war of attrition on the baseline, and inevitably it was Berrettini who kept blinking first. The break came at 2-1 as Djokovic won a protracted battle of backhand slices and then tapped his temple in tribute to his superior mental strength. By way of response, the crowd rallied firmly behind Berrettini when Djokovic faced two break points at 3-2. Irked by their betrayal, he won the next four points emphatically, turned to the crowd, roared in defiance and demanded their reverence.

Berrettini’s resurgence hadn’t been entirely stamped out, but he never fully recovered. At 3-3 in the fourth set, a breathtaking rally affirmed that Djokovic’s grip on the title wouldn’t slip, sliding at full throttle to reach Berrettini’s drop shot and somehow flicking it onto the opposing tramline. A puff of white smoke went up and, with it, Berrettini’s last dreams vanished. As Djokovic’s array of drop shots and slices buffetted Berrettini across the court, the fatigue set in as the clock ticked past three hours, and he buckled under the pressure as a double fault handed Djokovic the break. Berrettini’s effort had been valiant, on a stage unlike anything he’d previously known, and he can still spearhead the next generation Djokovic continues to hold back. For now, though, that wait will go on. One part of Djokovic’s relentless march towards history is now complete, but it is far from over.

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