WIMBLEDON, England — While the French Open has long been Rafael Nadal time, Wimbledon has become Novak Djokovic time.
He is not yet the greatest grass-court player of this Darwinian era in men’s tennis. Roger Federer, 40, absent from this year’s tournament, still gets that nod with his eight singles titles at the All England Club. But Djokovic, who used to pose with a homemade replica of the winner’s trophy in his youth, has certainly been the best in recent years with his acrobatic, tight-to-the-baseline style, and he is undoubtedly the greatest grass-courter in the men’s field as Wimbledon’s main draw begins Monday.
“It’s hard not to make Novak the prohibitive favorite,” said Paul Annacone, one of Federer’s former coaches. “People talk about preparation and lack of matches and stuff like that, but the thing is when you’ve played Wimbledon so many times and been there at the end so often, I don’t think it’s that important at all.”
Bjorn Borg, the stone-faced Swede, broke the mold on Wimbledon preparation, winning the event five straight times from 1976 to 1980 without playing an official warm-up tournament on grass. But the mold got repaired and redeployed for nearly 30 years before Djokovic smashed it again, perhaps for good.
He has won five of his six Wimbledon titles — 2011, 2014, 2015, 2019 and 2021 — without playing a tuneup event on tour and will aim to do the same again this year as he tries to win Wimbledon for the fourth time in a row.
“Every day that you get to have a little bit of a rest and reset helps,” Djokovic said. “But then, we’re all different.”
Speaking about grass courts, he added: “I didn’t have too many issues to adapt quickly to the surface. Over the years, I learned how to play more efficiently on the surface as well. At the beginning of my career, I was still struggling with movement and sliding.”
Djokovic, who will open play on Centre Court Monday against unseeded Kwon Soon-woo of South Korea, has not played an official match since his deflating, frankly mystifying loss to Nadal in a French Open quarterfinal. Djokovic seemingly had weathered the storm of Nadal’s thunderous start, but he failed to sustain his momentum and later blew a lead in the fourth and final set.
He spent some downtime with his wife, Jelena, and two young children before arriving in London to play — and play very well — in the exhibition grass-court event last week at the Hurlingham Club.
Nadal followed the same template, racing the clock to recover from a radio frequency ablation, which deadens nerves through the use of radio waves, to treat a left foot injury before playing — not quite so convincingly — at Hurlingham. Unlike his archrival Djokovic, Nadal has never won Wimbledon without an official lead-in tournament on grass. His two titles, in 2008 and 2010, came after competing at Queen’s Club, and unlike Djokovic, Nadal has not played at Wimbledon since 2019.
The tournament was canceled in 2020 because of the pandemic, and last year Nadal skipped it because of the chronic foot problem that has remained his concern throughout his intermittently magnificent 2022 campaign. He has won the first two legs of the Grand Slam: the Australian Open in January and then the French Open this month despite having to take painkilling injections to numb his left foot before all seven rounds in Paris.
But he said on Saturday that the radio frequency treatment had soothed his daily pain and granted him the freedom to push aggressively off his left foot, and there certainly seemed to be a spring in his step and an urgency to his mood as he practiced over the weekend at the All England Club.
“First of all, I can walk normal most of the days, almost every single day,” he said. “That’s for me the main issue. When I wake up, I don’t have this pain that I was having for the last year and a half, so I’m quite happy about that.”
Watch out, world, but even though Nadal has moved mountains in 2022, it will still be an uphill battle to rise to Djokovic’s level on grass.
They can only meet in the final as the top two seeds in the tournament, with top-ranked Daniil Medvedev and second-ranked Alexander Zverev absent. Medvedev, a Russian, is among the players barred from Wimbledon this year because of the war in Ukraine. Zverev, a German, tore ligaments in his right ankle in his semifinal loss to Nadal at the French Open on June 3.
But there are still clear, big-serving threats to a Djokovic-Nadal rematch, which would be an Open Era men’s record 10th duel in a Grand Slam final.
Hubert Hurkacz, an amiable Pole who upset Federer last year in the quarterfinals, is a grass-court wiz and manhandled Medvedev to win the title in Halle, Germany, this month. He is in Djokovic’s half of the draw at Wimbledon. Matteo Berrettini, the powerful Italian who lost to Djokovic in last year’s Wimbledon final and just won tuneup events on grass in Stuttgart, Germany, and at Queen’s Club, is in Nadal’s half.
But Nadal, who faces Francisco Cerundolo, an unseeded Argentine, in the first round on Tuesday, could get a big early test if he faces Sam Querrey of the United States in the second round.
Querrey’s ranking has slipped, but he remains dangerous on grass and is the last man to defeat Djokovic in a completed match at Wimbledon, upsetting him in the third round in 2016 as Djokovic began a tailspin that would last nearly two years.
Djokovic is in another difficult phase, partly of his own doing, by, unlike every other top men’s tennis player, declining to get vaccinated against Covid-19. That led to his deportation from Australia in January ahead of the Australian Open and could keep him out of the U.S. Open later this year unless the United States lifts its ban on entry for unvaccinated foreigners.
“Of course, I’m aware of that,” Djokovic said. “That is an extra motivation to do well here. Hopefully I can have a very good tournament, as I have done in the last three editions. Then I’ll just have to wait and see. I would love to go to the States, but as of today, that’s not possible.”
He has played just 21 matches in 2022: Fourteen fewer than he had played at this same stage last season. But grass, once the main surface for professional tennis, is now a sideshow and an acquired taste. Djokovic, who has liked to chew on a blade of Centre Court grass after his titles at Wimbledon, has clearly acquired it.
As the best returner in men’s tennis, he can still break serve on a surface that favors the server. As the most flexible player in men’s tennis, he can bend himself into all manner of positions to deal with the lower bounce on grass. He can also shut down the baseline and also keep opponents off balance by serving and volleying on big points.
“It’s a rough recipe,” Annacone said. “And though we talk about how much he dominates on hardcourts, his winning percentage is actually higher on grass.”
That is true: His career winning percentage in singles is 84 percent on hardcourts, just a shade below his 85 percent on grass.
Now, in a downbeat season, it’s time for the rightful Wimbledon favorite to try to widen that gap and to narrow the gap with Nadal, who has 22 Grand Slam singles titles to Djokovic’s 20.