LONDON — The Wimbledon men’s singles title is Novak Djokovic‘s to lose, at least according to the game’s greats. He has been the clear favorite from the start of the tournament, and having dropped just one set ahead of his 41st Grand Slam semifinal, it’s going to take something truly remarkable to stop him in his chase for his sixth Wimbledon crown and 20th Grand Slam title overall.
But Djokovic himself is taking nothing for granted, despite the expectations. Coming off a 6-3, 6-4, 6-4 win against Marton Fucsovics on Wednesday, Djokovic’s path to the championship is as much about game management (and winning) as it is mastering his own mind.
“Sometimes things do look surreal for me, but I try to live in the moment,” he said on Centre Court after having his accolades — 315 Grand Slam singles match victories, 10 Wimbledon semifinal appearances — recited to him. This was his 100th Grand Slam singles match win on grass. As remarkable as those achievements might be, those previously lofty feats are now the norm for Djokovic.
During his on-court interview, he was asked, “How would you describe this victory?” to which, one fan replied, “Boring.” With a slightly nervous smile, he answered, “You guys are putting pressure on my answers here.”
“I’m aware of the certain statistics,” he said, “but I love this court with all my heart, body and soul, I’ve been devoted to this sport since I was 4.”
It has been a solitary journey for Djokovic at Wimbledon. Winning for him is expected, like Lewis Hamilton’s dominance in the Formula 1 world. This inevitability leads to a greater support for the underdogs.
While some feed off the All England Club crowd like Andy Murray (who focuses on random people in the crowd to keep him fired up), Nick Kyrgios (who fires up others) or Federer (a fan favorite who lost in straight sets on Wednesday), Djokovic’s motivation comes from within.
“He’s mentally tougher than any other player on this planet,” 18-time Grand Slam women’s singles champion and current ESPN TV analyst Chris Evert said Thursday. “We saw that when he beat [Stefanos] Tsitsipas at the French Open. He was down two sets — if he’s playing a five-set match and he’s down two sets, even two sets and a break, he just weathers the storm and he knows that he’s going to get an opening and the window’s going to open for him to jump in there. Once his opponent maybe plays one or two poor points, he jumps in there, he takes control of the match, he knows he can win and he closes it. And that’s what he does so well. He just stays calm when he’s losing and he has that belief and confidence that he can pull himself and that his opponent’s not going to continue that high quality of play.”
Fresh off his remarkable win at Roland Garros, Djokovic is willing to embrace the challenge of making tennis history, but he has grounded himself to not lose sight of what is happening in the moment.
“If I start, you know, giving away my attention and energy to these speculations and discussions and debates,” Djokovic said after beating Cristian Garin in the round of 16, “I feel like it’s going to derail me from what I feel is the priority at this moment for me, which is take it step by step, day by day, stick to stuff that make me feel good, that make me feel comfortable, confident, finally that make me prepare the best that I possibly can be prepared for the final stages of Grand Slams.”
He might not have the same body as he did in his late 20s and early 30s, but after beating Kevin Anderson in straight sets in the second round, the 34-year-old Djokovic said he has adjusted his priorities at this stage of his career, opting to focus on Grand Slams rather than chase ATP points and win more total tournaments.
It’s no secret Djokovic is motivated by his success and he’s aware of his place among himself, Federer and Nadal for the most men’s Grand Slam singles titles. But he has anchored himself in such a way in which the honors and numbers are simply a byproduct of his success, rather than the primary focus when he steps onto Centre Court.
“Of course, I understand that people love to debate who is the greatest. … There’s always a lot going on, I think, off the tennis court,” Djokovic said earlier in the championship. “But once I’m on the court, I try to lock in and I try to exclude all the distractions. I feel like over the years I managed to develop the mechanism that allows me to do that. Everyone has their own special ways how to center themselves, how to focus themselves, really direct, so to say, the energy in what matters the most, which is the present moment.
“I have my own techniques, my own ways. It has been working so far, so I’ll try to keep on doing that. “
Up next for Djokovic on Friday is Canadian Denis Shapovalov. He’ll give Djokovic his sternest task yet, but the Serbian champion will have a plan for him.
And that’s part of what puts Djokovic in the running to be the greatest men’s tennis player ever. It isn’t having a résumé based on trophies alone; it’s how he manages everything thrown at him and how he avoids getting too caught up in his accomplishments.
“I’m making my own path and my own journey, my own history,” Djokovic said. “I’m privileged to be part of history of this sport that I love. As I said on the court, I know about a lot of stats. I don’t know about all of them. But they do motivate me even more to play my best tennis at the events that count the most in our sport.”