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Novak Djokovic Has Prepared His Way. So Has Rafael Nadal.


WIMBLEDON, England — While the French Open has long been Rafael Nadal time, Wimbledon has develop into Novak Djokovic time.

He is just not yet the best grass-court player of this Darwinian era in men’s tennis. Roger Federer, 40, absent from this 12 months’s tournament, still gets that nod together with his eight singles titles on the All England Club. But Djokovic, who used to pose with a homemade replica of the winner’s trophy in his youth, has definitely been one of the best in recent times together with his acrobatic, tight-to-the-baseline style, and he’s undoubtedly the best grass-courter in the boys’s field as Wimbledon’s important draw begins Monday.

“It’s hard to not make Novak the prohibitive favorite,” said Paul Annacone, one among Federer’s former coaches. “People discuss preparation and lack of matches and stuff like that, however the thing is whenever you’ve played Wimbledon so persistently and been there at the tip so often, I don’t think it’s that necessary in any respect.”

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. However 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 can aim to do the identical again this 12 months as he tries to win Wimbledon for the fourth time in a row.

“Daily that you simply get to have just a little 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 time, I learned find out how to play more efficiently on the surface as well. In the beginning of my profession, I used to be still combating 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 didn’t sustain his momentum and later blew a lead within the fourth and final set.

He spent some downtime together with his wife, Jelena, and two young children before arriving in London to play — and play thoroughly — within the exhibition grass-court event last week on the Hurlingham Club.

Nadal followed the identical template, racing the clock to get better from a radio frequency ablation, which deadens nerves through using 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, got here after competing at Queen’s Club, and in contrast to Djokovic, Nadal has not played at Wimbledon since 2019.

The tournament was canceled in 2020 due to the pandemic, and last 12 months Nadal skipped it due to the chronic foot problem that has remained his concern throughout his intermittently magnificent 2022 campaign. He has won the primary two legs of the Grand Slam: the Australian Open in January after which 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 each day pain and granted him the liberty to push aggressively off his left foot, and there definitely appeared to be a spring in his step and an urgency to his mood as he practiced over the weekend on the All England Club.

“To begin with, I can walk normal a lot of the days, almost each day,” he said. “That’s for me the important issue. After I get up, I don’t have this pain that I used to be having for the last 12 months and a half, so I’m quite completely satisfied about that.”

Be careful, world, but although Nadal has moved mountains in 2022, it can still be an uphill battle to rise to Djokovic’s level on grass.

They will only meet in the ultimate as the highest two seeds within the tournament, with top-ranked Daniil Medvedev and second-ranked Alexander Zverev absent. Medvedev, a Russian, is among the many players barred from Wimbledon this 12 months due to the war in Ukraine. Zverev, a German, tore ligaments in his right ankle in his semifinal loss to Nadal on the French Open on June 3.

But there are still clear, big-serving threats to a Djokovic-Nadal rematch, which can be an Open Era men’s record tenth duel in a Grand Slam final.

Hubert Hurkacz, an amiable Pole who upset Federer last 12 months within the quarterfinals, is a grass-court wiz and manhandled Medvedev to win the title in Halle, Germany, this month. He’s in Djokovic’s half of the draw at Wimbledon. Matteo Berrettini, the powerful Italian who lost to Djokovic in last 12 months’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 primary round on Tuesday, could get an enormous early test if he faces Sam Querrey of the US within the second round.

Querrey’s rating has slipped, but he stays dangerous on grass and is the last man to defeat Djokovic in a accomplished match at Wimbledon, upsetting him within the third round in 2016 as Djokovic began a tailspin that may last nearly two years.

Djokovic is in one other 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 will keep him out of the U.S. Open later this 12 months unless the US lifts its ban on entry for unvaccinated foreigners.

“In fact, I’m aware of that,” Djokovic said. “That’s an additional motivation to do well here. Hopefully I can have a excellent tournament, as I even have done within the last three editions. Then I’ll just need to wait and see. I’d like to go to the States, but as of today, that’s impossible.”

He has played just 21 matches in 2022: Fourteen fewer than he had played at this same stage last season. But grass, once the important surface for skilled 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 one of the best returner in men’s tennis, he can still break serve on a surface that favors the server. As probably the most flexible player in men’s tennis, he can bend himself into all manner of positions to cope with the lower bounce on grass. He also can shut down the baseline and likewise keep opponents off balance by serving and volleying on big points.

“It’s a rough recipe,” Annacone said. “And though we discuss how much he dominates on hardcourts, his winning percentage is definitely higher on grass.”

That’s true: His profession winning percentage in singles is 84 percent on hardcourts, only a shade below his 85 percent on grass.

Now, in a downbeat season, it’s time for the rightful Wimbledon favorite to attempt to widen that gap and to narrow the gap with Nadal, who has 22 Grand Slam singles titles to Djokovic’s 20.

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