LONDON — Novak Djokovic didn’t do it in the Australian, where he usually does it. He didn’t do it in the French, where he’s never done it.
And so this Wimbledon, to him and many others, the most important tournament in tennis, Djokovic has to win. Or else, his reputation will take a hit.
The Brits have a phrase for those who are in the battle but never triumph. They’re known as “nearly men.” They nearly did it.
As in the Super Bowl, the Buffalo Bills nearly did it. As in racing’s quest for a Triple Crown Silver Charm, Smarty Jones and, most recently, California Chrome nearly did it.
As in the U.S. Open golf tournament, Phil Mickelson, with his six second-place finishes, nearly did it.
Sport becomes an issue of what you’ve done lately. The Miami Heat? Used to be an NBA champion. Not lately. New York Yankees? Used to be World Series winners. Not lately.
Novak Djokovic? Six-time Grand Slam champion. But not lately.
Lately, he loses to Rafael Nadal in the final of the 2014 French Open. Lately, he loses to Nadal in the final of the 2013 U.S. Open. Lately, he loses to Andy Murray in the final of 2013 Wimbledon.
Not since the 2013 Australian Open, when he defeated Murray, six Slams past, has Djokovic won a big one.
So when he arrived for the start of this Wimbledon—where he is the No. 1 seed, even though he is No. 2 in the rankings behind Nadal—Djokovic was forced to talk as much about what he hadn’t done, the loss a couple weeks earlier in the French, as what he hoped to do.
“He deserved to win,” a magnanimous Djokovic said of Nadal at the French. “He was better in the big moments.”
As was Nadal in a U.S. Open final last September which featured a 54-shot rally, Djokovic sighing about Nadal, “He’s definitely one of the best players ever,” and TV commentator Mary Carillo asking “What’s it like to be playing a guy like Rafa?” and trapping Djokovic into mumbling, “Thanks for bringing that up.”
What’s been brought up about Novak Djokovic, 27, is his inability to reach the final threshold, to get himself included when the discussions deal with the greatest players of the current era.
The most obvious are Roger Federer, with his 17 slams, and Nadal, who has 14. Djokovic doesn’t always get a mention.
He’s in single figures, six Slams, including Wimbledon in 2011, the year when he also won the Australian and U.S. Open and was thought to be unstoppable. The domination disappeared.
“As a tennis player playing more or less week after week,” he said in a media interview here a few days ago, “the big events, you have to get used to winning and losing...It’s important to take the best out of these losses and understand what you did wrong and grow from that.”
Sometimes, as against Nadal, it isn’t what Djokovic did wrong but what Nadal did right.
“The finals this year in France, in 2012 where I also lost to Nadal and the (2013) five-setter loss in the semifinals, those particular losses have taken a lot out of me emotionally.”
To work on his head, to stay positive, Djokovic hired as an additional coach a man with great heart, Boris Becker, the three-time Wimbledon champ. Becker threw his body on the grass chasing balls like a linebacker going after running backs.
In fact, Saturday, when Djokovic won his third-round match, tumbling accidentally on his left shoulder—an MRI showed no muscle damage—he quipped, “I talked to Boris; we obviously need to work on my diving volleys, learning to fall down on the court.”
The question is not of falling down, but of standing up, of taking advantage of his enormous athletic talent and grabbing a championship trophy.
“I have to try to improve myself not just on the court,” Djokovic said, “but to understand the mental aspect; what is happening in those finals, why I am not able to win a Grand Slam title the last couple of years. Lost, what, four, five finals?”
Five of the last nine, beginning with the 2012 French.
“It’s one of the reasons Boris is aboard,” Djokovic said. “As someone who is a multiple Grand Slam winner, No. 1 in the world, he can identify himself through my own course of life and experience. It’s a process that takes a little more time.”
Which is a problem in a sport where time is fleeting. Even Nadal, just 28, was talking of a new generation of players coming up. One day you’re young; the next, figuratively, you’re old. Djokovic is at the perfect age, and at the All England Lawn Tennis Club, just the right place.
“There are things in my game I would like to improve and see if I can do better in the next match (against Jo-Wilfried Tsonga),” said Djokovic. “But for now everything is going in the right direction. I hope to elevate my game as the tournament progresses.
“If I don’t do that, then I’ll find myself in a very difficult position.”
The position he’s been in all too frequently the last few Grand Slams, that of the nearly man.
Art Spander, an award-winning columnist, has covered more than 50 Grand Slams in his career. Unless otherwise noted, all quotes were obtained firsthand.