IT is official, or nearly so:Novak Djokovic is the leading tennis player on the planet.
The Serb’s miracle year ticked smoothly into its seventh spectacular month when he disposed of Jo-Wilfried Tsonga in straight sets on Centre Court yesterday.
Not only did Djokovic march into his first Wimbledon final, he guaranteed himself the honour of usurping Rafael Nadal at the top of the world game when the new rankings are released on Monday.
In this supposedly uber-competitive era for men’s tennis, this was Djokovic’s 47th win this season, from 48 matches. Whether it is the improved mechanics of his serve and forehand, his new gluten-free diet, a lift from Serbia’s Davis Cup triumph, or just that capricious old commodity called confidence that has made the difference, it is certainly working.
Much more of this and the great John McEnroe might start glancing nervously at his 82 wins and three defeats in 1984, which still goes down as the most spectacular single calendar year achieved by any male tennis player in modern history.
In the case of his duel with Tsonga, who defeated Roger Federer in the quarter-finals, Djokovic, with his agile running and alert baseline defence, had the measure of his opponent all day, save for a third set in which he let the Frenchman back in from a break down to prolong the match with a thrilling tie-break.
After restoring his supremacy, Djokovic, 24, lay on his back glorying in his 7-6 (4), 6-2, 6-7 (9), 6-3 victory, applauded exuberantly by his corner. In the course of a splendid match, both men had become well acquainted with the Centre Court turf, having regularly ended up on the ground as they traded volleys at the net.
Djokovic had looked rattled earlier in the tournament against both Marcos Baghdatis and Bernard Tomic but he was fresh as a daisy yesterday, and never looked troubled after nullifying an early Tsonga service break in the first set.
The Australian Open champion, who has a had twice endured heartbreak in the semi-finals here – he retired against Nadal in 2007 and was beaten by Tomas Berdych last year – said Wimbledon was the tournament he had grown up dreaming of winning. Djokovic said. “This is one of those moments you can’t describe with words. When I finished the match I didn’t know how to show my emotions.
“It is the tournament that I watched first and something that I always dreamed of winning when I started playing tennis. Being in the Wimbledon final, it’s ‘the thing’ for me.”
Perhaps claiming that world No.1 tag will feel a little hollow if Djokovic loses to Nadal in the final tomorrow, but managing to overtake Nadal and Federer on a gruelling climb to the top is a gigantic achievement, especially for a man who grew up with his homeland engaged a brutal civil war.
“There were times in the last two or three years where it was really difficult and I was losing most of important matches at the later stages of the majors against those two guys,” Djojkovic said.
“There were times when I questioned myself, but I always overcame it because the belief was so strong. After growing up my country, with wars and so on, it wasn’t easy to hold that desire and really believe in yourself. I guess you need to lose only one match in seven months to get there ...”
This was a re-run of the 2008 Australian Open final and for Tsonga the result must have been every bit as demoralising. He had executed his big- serving, aggressive game plan in a manner not dissimilar to his performance against Federer, only to find that Dkokovic was “everywhere”.
“I played well,” Tsonga said, “but my opponent was just better than me. I tried to take my chance on every point, but he was running everywhere and all the time I saw the ball come back.”
Still, Tsonga has discovered his metier in grass, and went off with the crowd’s cheers ringing in his ears, not least for one backhand volley he put away seconds after picking himself up off the grass. So often does he throw himself full length, he at times seems like a cross between a tennis player and a goalkeeper. “This is the only surface you can really dive,” he said, “because on the others, if you dive you go directly to the hospital.”
But it is Djokovic who marches on, into a match-up with Nadal, whom he has defeated in all four of their meetings in 2011. “This year we have played so many finals and important matches,” Djokovic said. “Obviously, even though it’s a different surface I believe I can win against him. He still has a lot of confidence and knows how it feels like to win a trophy at Wimbledon. Me I don’t know, because I never been there.”
Given the way his annus mirabilis is progressing, the wait may be about to end.
men’s semi-finals Serb overhauls Nadal in rankings with win over Tsonga, writes Stewart Fisher