You could forgive 24-year-old Novak Djokovic if the moment got to his head. But his revelry left some scratching their heads.
The Serbian tennis star, who on Monday will become the new world number 1 and who has lost only one match this year, had just beaten Rafael Nadal in four stunning sets in the Wimbledon final in front of a huge ensemble of family, friends, supporters, and the president of Serbia himself. But shortly after winning the last point of his 6-4, 6-1, 1-6, 6-3 victory, he indulged in an unlikely celebration: he ate dirt.
Reaching down, Djokovic plucked some grass and soil from Center Court and put it in his mouth. It was a gesture of humility and reverence at the scene of his greatest triumph as an athlete, and was followed by an equally graceful acceptance speech. “It’s really hard to describe with any words except that it’s the best day of my life, the most special day of my life,” Djokovic told the Center Court crowd. “This is my favorite tournament. I always dreamed of winning the first tournament I watched in my life. I think I am still sleeping and having my dream.
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In a final defined by long, varied exchanges, Djokovic upset Nadal, the reigning champion, by proving once again what Nadal has long established at Wimbledon: that a gymnastic ability to retrieve balls from defensive positions has become as an effective tactic in grass court tennis today as offensive attacking style was a decade ago. Over the course of four sets, Djokovic’s clean and precise hitting wore Nadal down—in much the same way as the Spaniard defeated Swiss great Roger Federer in previous encounters.
“When you’re playing the best player in the world, Rafa Nadal, who has won two of the last three Wimbledons, he has always been winning the big matches against me in the Grand Slams and I had to be on top of my game today. I probably played my best match ever on the grass court, and I want to congratulate him for having a great tournament,” Djokovic said.
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Lacking Nadal’s charisma and Federer’s grace, Djokovic is probably the least popular of tennis’ top echelon of stars. And while the fervent and immodest courtside support of his family has at times failed to endear him to fellow players and fans—his mother and chest-thumping younger brothers have shown up to his matches in the past wearing shirts bearing Novak’s visage—Djokovic’s private celebration ritual after Sunday’s final, coupled with his humble acceptance speech, may mean that he has finally earned the two things that had most frustratingly eluded him in his career: a Wimbledon trophy, and universal respect.