WIMBLEDON, England — Until Sunday, Novak Djokovic never managed to win a grass-court tournament of any sort, let alone Wimbledon.
Until Sunday, Djokovic never was able to beat Rafael Nadal in a Grand Slam match, let alone a final.
Until this marvelous — and nearly perfect — year, Djokovic was very good. Now he’s great.
After outrunning, outswinging and, for stretches, dominating defending champion Nadal, winning 6-4, 6-1, 1-6, 6-3 for his first title at the All England Club and third major championship overall, Djokovic crouched on Center Court, reached down, plucked some blades of grass and shoved them in his mouth.
“I felt like an animal. I wanted to see how it tastes. It tastes good,” Djokovic said later, his eyes wide and his smile contagious. “It came spontaneously, really. I didn’t plan to do it. I didn’t know what to do for my excitement and joy.”
Putting together one of the best seasons by any athlete in any sport in recent memory, Djokovic is 48-1 with eight titles in 2011, including major trophies from the Australian Open and Wimbledon. On Monday, he will rise from No. 2 to No. 1 in the ATP rankings, overtaking Nadal, a switch that was guaranteed by virtue of Djokovic’s victory in the semifinals Friday.
“I want to win more Grand Slams,” said Djokovic, the first man since Andre Agassi in 1992 to win his first grass title at Wimbledon. “I will definitely not stop here, even though I have achieved [the] two biggest things in my life in three days.”
Which, perhaps, is why he engaged in such a lengthy and original celebration, even tossing several rackets into the stands, the sort of crowd-pleasing gesture for which Djokovic long has been known.
Indeed, early in his career, Djokovic stood out less for his shot-making than for his showmanship — check out his spot-on impersonations of other pros, including Nadal, on YouTube — and a hard-to-explain propensity for losing, or even quitting, during late-round matches at majors.
Right now, though, the 24-year-old from Serbia is the total package, with the bona fides to prove it.
He credits a handful of factors with helping him truly excel recently: more maturity; confidence from helping Serbia win its first Davis Cup title in December; and a gluten-free diet he doesn’t like to discuss in any detail.
Djokovic’s only loss all season came against 16-time major champion Roger Federer in the French Open semifinals a month ago, Djokovic’s seventh exit from a Grand Slam tournament in the final four.
For so many years, Federer and Nadal ruled tennis. One or the other was No. 1 every week since February 2004. One or the other won 22 of the last 26 Grand Slam tournaments, including Nadal’s 10 titles.
But now Djokovic owns three of the other four trophies in that span — 2009 U.S. Open champion Juan Martin del Potro has the other — and finally elbowed his way past that pair in the rankings.
“We all know the careers of Nadal and Federer. … They have been the two most dominant players in the world the last five years. They have won most of the majors,” Djokovic said. “So sometimes it did feel a little bit frustrating when you kind of get to the later stages of a Grand Slam — meaning last four, last eight — and then you have to meet them. They always come up with their best tennis when it matters the most. … I always believed that I have [enough} quality to beat those two guys.”