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AP Tennis Writer
WIMBLEDON, England (AP) — The Wimbledon final was locked up at a set apiece after nearly 2 1/2 hours, and Novak Djokovic’s bid for a record-tying 20th Grand Slam title was at a critical juncture, when he faced two break points while thousands in the full-capacity crowd at Centre Court chanted his opponent’s first name.
Bothered, perhaps, by the challenge he was facing between the lines Sunday, and, perhaps, by the support being thrown behind Matteo Berrettini, and, perhaps, by the weight of the milestone he was pursuing, Djokovic shrugged all of that off and steeled himself, as he’s done so many times at so many moments on so many stages.
On each of the next two points, Djokovic, known for his baseline supremacy, charged forward. On each, Berrettini’s passing attempt found the net. After the second, Djokovic stared into the stands and pointed to his ear, then waved his racket. He got what he wanted; a chorus of his nickname broke out: “No-le! No-le!” Two points later, when he grabbed the game with a 118 mph ace, Djokovic put his racket behind an ear, heard more noise, nodded and smiled.
An hour later, the match was finished — Djokovic won 6-7 (4), 6-4, 6-4, 6-3 — and so, too, was his stated desire to equal the total of major championships collected by his biggest rivals, Roger Federer (who reached 20 in 2018) and Rafael Nadal (who did it last year). No other male tennis player has more than 14.
Djokovic, of course, wants more.
“I consider myself best, and I believe that I am the best, otherwise I wouldn’t be talking confidently about winning Slams and making history,” said Djokovic, a 34-year-old from Serbia who is ranked No. 1 and has spent more weeks in that top spot than any other man. “But whether I’m the greatest of all time or not, I leave that debate to other people.”
It is a popular topic, certainly. And every member of the so-called Big Three has his supporters. This season might tilt the balance in Djokovic’s favor in the minds of those yet to be convinced.
Already the first man since Rod Laver in 1969 to win the first three major tournaments in a year, Djokovic will take aim at a true calendar Grand Slam at the U.S. Open, which starts Aug. 30. Only two men — Don Budge in the 1930s and Laver twice in the 1960s — have gone 4-for-4.
Djokovic earned a third consecutive championship at the All England Club and sixth overall. Those go along- side nine at the Australian Open, three at the U.S. Open and two at the French Open.
Federer and Nadal both tweeted their congratulations. This was Djokovic’s 30th major final — among men, only Federer has played more, 31 — and the first for Berrettini, a 25-year-old from Italy who was seeded No. 7.
“Hopefully,” Berrettini said, “it’s not going be my last one.” It was a big sporting day in London for his country: Italy’s soccer team faced England at Wembley Stadium in the European Championship final at night.
With Marija Cicak officiating, the first female chair umpire for a men’s final at a tournament that began in 1877, play began as the sun made a rare appearance during the fortnight, the sky visible in between the clouds.
The opening game featured signs of edginess from both, but especially Djokovic, whose pair of double-faults contributed to the half-dozen combined unforced errors. He faced a break point but staved it off.
It was an entertaining final, with some magical points. On one, Berrettini conjured up a ‘tweener lob that Djokovic tracked down with his own- back-to-the-court flick that wound up in the net. On another, Djokovic slid into a keep-the-point-going defensive backhand and, after Berrettini replied with a drop shot, sprinted forward for a winner. Djokovic raised his index finger — as if to remind everyone, “I’m No. 1!” — and Berrettini flipped his racket end over end, caught it and smiled.
What more could he do?
Not much anyone can do against Djokovic, it seems. He has won eight of the past 12 majors — all since turning 30. And for all of the questions about when the younger generation would step forward, Djokovic is singlehandedly holding off the kids.
In this year’s three majors, he is 21-0, with victories in finals over Daniil Medvedev, 25, in Australia, Stefanos Tsitsipas, 22, in France, and now Berrettini, 25.
On Sunday, Djokovic made merely 21 unforced errors, while accumulating 31 winners.