By Martyn Herman
LONDON (Reuters) – Maybe when the fans start serenading Novak Djokovic in a Centre Court love-in it will be time for the Serb to call it a day.
When he starts receiving the same adoration reserved almost exclusively for Roger Federer in Sunday’s epic Wimbledon final, maybe his resolve will soften, his hunger for the fight diminish, his love of “sticking it to them” fade.
“Hopefully, in five years’ time I can be hearing the same chants,” the 32-year-old Serb said as he signed off his news conference following a five-set win over Federer which sealed a fifth Wimbledon title and 16th Grand Slam crown.
Sunday’s triumph, in which he saved two match points and soaked up 94 winners off the Federer racket before clawing his way over the line in the longest Wimbledon singles final, confirmed Djokovic as the ultimate tennis anti-hero.
Apart from those in his box, it seemed the entire crowd were rooting for Federer. They even booed him near the end when he angrily whacked a court-side microphone.
He had the last laugh.
While Federer and Rafael Nadal are still swinging their rackets, he will behind them in the popularity stakes.
Sheer bloody-mindedness, as well as outrageous talent, is the reason Federer, Nadal and Djokovic, aged almost 38, 33 and 32 respectively, remain out of reach for their pursuers and the reason they share 54 Grand Slam titles, including the last 11.
But while Federer paints the court with strokes of magic and the swashbuckling Nadal plays tennis like a superhero, Djokovic is the master of attrition, winning by a thousand cuts.
No matter that he is arguably the best returner the game has ever seen, is the best athlete and has an engaging personality, there is only so much love to go around.
For now Djokovic will not care, and if anything will use a perceived lack of fanfare for his incredible feats as fuel to keep collecting Grand Slam titles and move past Federer and Nadal to the top of the all-time list.
“Whether I’m going to be able to do it or not, I don’t know. I mean, I’m not really looking at age as a restriction of any kind for me at least,” Djokovic, the only man since Rod Laver to have held all four Grand Slams simultaneously, said on Sunday.
“It just depends how long I’m going to play, whether I’m going to have a chance to make historic number one or slams.
“It depends not only on myself, it depends on circumstances in life,” the father of two added.
Had Federer converted one of the two match points that came his way at 8-7 in the fifth set he would have moved six Grand Slams clear of Djokovic.
Instead it is four, and having won four of the last five on offer Djokovic appears to be in the middle of a period of domination that shows no sign of ending.
He will go into the U.S. Open as red-hot favourite to retain his title and when next year begins he will have his eyes fixed on winning an eighth Australian Open crown.
Former coach Boris Becker says the race is now on and believes all three will add to their tallies.
But time, perhaps, is on Djokovic’s side.
“He’s a year younger than Nadal and five younger than Federer — we all know he fancies overtaking them,” Becker said. “Honestly, I think he can, but I wouldn’t say that for sure.”
(This story corrects number of Grand Slams won to “four of the last five” in para 16.)
(Reporting by Martyn Herman, editing by Ed Osmond)