LONDON — Novak Djokovic acknowledged that he was worried. His coach was, too.
Could Djokovic ever return to the top of tennis? To the heights he’d already reached? Could he put aside the time lost to a painful right elbow that required surgery and the disappointment of poor-for-him results? Could he end a Grand Slam drought that lasted more than two years?
All of that fretting seemed misplaced Sunday night. Back at his best, Djokovic became Wimbledon’s champion for the fourth time, grabbing a lead right away against a weary Kevin Anderson in the final and holding off a late challenge to win 6-2, 6-2, 7-6 (3).
“There were several moments where I was frustrated and questioning whether I can get back (to the) desired level or not. But that makes this whole journey even more special for me,” Djokovic said.
“It’s easy to talk now and look back at it and be kind of grateful, but I really am grateful to go through this kind of, so to say, mixed emotions, turbulences as well, mentally, moments of doubt and disappointment and frustration, anger.”
It is Djokovic’s 13th major trophy, the fourth-highest total in the history of men’s tennis, trailing only Roger Federer’s 20, Rafael Nadal’s 17 and his childhood idol Pete Sampras’ 14.
But it’s also Djokovic’s first since he completed a career Grand Slam at the 2016 French Open.
“It was a long journey,” the 31-year-old from Serbia said. “I couldn’t pick a better place, to be honest, in the tennis world to peak and to make a comeback.”
A year ago at the All England Club, Djokovic quit during his quarterfinal because of the elbow, then took the rest of 2017 off.
After the operation in February, Djokovic’s results were mediocre. He realized later he tried to come back too soon.
“I really was impatient,” he says now.
In April, he reunited with Marian Vajda, the man who had coached Djokovic for years before Boris Becker and Andre Agassi did.
“I always had doubt,” Vajda said. “I was thinking really negative.”
They built “the new Novak,” as Vajda explained it.
Retooled his serve. Made adjustments to other strokes.
Still, Djokovic was so dispirited by his upset loss at the French Open last month that he vowed, in the heat of the moment, to skip the grass-court circuit.
Good thing he didn’t stick to that.
Because he fell out of the top 20 for the first time in more than a decade, the No. 21 Djokovic is the lowest-ranked Wimbledon titlist since Goran Ivanisevic in 2001.
On Sunday, under a pale blue sky interrupted by only the occasional soft white puff of cloud, Djokovic looked far more like a guy who used to be No. 1.
“The first two sets,” said Anderson, who played college tennis at the University of Illinois, “Novak beat up on me pretty bad.”
Anderson could be excused for exhaustion. His semifinal was the second-longest Grand Slam match in history, lasting more than 6 1/2 hours until he edged John Isner 26-24 in the fifth set. And that followed another extended fifth set in his 13-11 upset of eight-time champion Federer in the quarterfinals.
Anderson also blamed some nerves.
This was, after all, the 22nd Grand Slam final for Djokovic, and the second for Anderson, the runner-up at last year’s U.S. Open and aiming to become the first South African man to win Wimbledon.
He was so out of sorts, his strokes so off-the-mark, that Djokovic gathered eight of the first 10 games even though he only conjured up two winners. No need for more, because Anderson gifted him 15 unforced errors in that span.
“I didn’t really find my form the way I wanted to,” said Anderson, whose right elbow was massaged by a trainer after the first set. “Of course, my body didn’t feel great.”
It was so lopsided for the first hour-plus that spectators began pulling for Anderson, likely in the hopes of getting more tennis for their tickets, which carried a face value of 210 pounds (about $275).
Somehow, Anderson raised his game late and nearly managed to extend the match, five times standing just a point away from forcing a fourth set.
Djokovic held steady on each one, then was as superior in the tiebreaker as he was most of the afternoon.
“You can definitely see the improvements he’s made since coming back from injury,” Anderson said.
By the end, Djokovic’s new serve had saved all seven break points he faced. His groundstrokes were a big reason he only made 13 unforced errors, while Anderson had 32.
When Anderson pushed a forehand return into the net to end it, Djokovic exhaled. After they shook hands, Djokovic performed his personal ritual of bending down to grab a couple of blades of grass and plopping them in his mouth, savoring the triumph.
He did the same after his Wimbledon titles in 2011, 2014 and 2015. One key difference on this day was the presence of two special guests: The doctor who performed the elbow surgery and Djokovic’s 3-year-old son, Stefan, who was in the stands for the trophy presentation.
Later, they met in a hallway, and Djokovic knelt down to hug his child.
“It feels amazing,” Djokovic said, “because for the first time in my life, I have someone screaming ‘Daddy! Daddy!”‘
As much as Djokovic is known for his body-bending defence and unerring reads on opponents’ serves, he’s also someone who fills his matches with histrionics and exaggerated reactions, whether violently smacking the side of his shoe with his racket — as he did against Nadal in their thrilling five-set semifinal that began Friday and ended Saturday — or tearing off his shirt to celebrate a victory.
This day was no different. Angered by fans making noise during points, he told the chair umpire to tell them to shut up, throwing a colorful word into the demand. He pointed to his ear after winning one point, as if to say: “Who are you cheering for now?!” He blew a kiss toward the stands after another.
But when he broke Anderson for the second time in three service games at the outset, Djokovic simply shook a clenched fist while calmly looking at his guest box above the scoreboard. The bright yellow digits on there showed that Djokovic already led 4-1 after all of 18 minutes.
Might as well have declared him the champion, right then and there.