WIMBLEDON, England -- The man standing between Novak Djokovic and a record-tying 20th Grand Slam title, Matteo Berrettini, remembers being wowed by Wimbledon when he played in the junior event as a teenager.
“For me, it was just absurd. I asked myself, ‘Who knows if one day I’ll return and play in the main tournament, even just in qualifying? I have no idea.’ And now I’m in the final,” he said, then laughed at the thought of it all.
“So it’s all a bit strange,” continued the barrel-chested, big-hitting Berrettini, now 25. “But what’s beautiful ... is that I’m much more aware of what I can do now. I know I can do this, because I’m here.”
That he is. On Sunday at the All England Club, the No. 1-seeded Djokovic's 30th major final will be No. 7 seed Berrettini's first — and the first for any man from Italy since Adriano Panatta won the 1976 French Open. (It'll also be the first men's final at Wimbledon with a female chair umpire; Marija Cicak of Croatia got the assignment.)
“My hope for Sunday is to try to go on the court with my head held high, play my game and see what happens. I don’t want to think that it’s already a win just to be there, that I can be satisfied with that, because that’s not what I’m made of. I always want more,” Berrettini said after beating Hubert Hurkacz 6-3, 6-0, 6-7 (3), 6-4 in Friday's semifinals. “But I have to be proud of what I’m doing, because it’s not a given and it’s not easy.”
The key to the title match could be Berrettini's massive serves (to the tune of 101 aces and 95 of 100 holds in the tournament) against Djokovic's best-in-the-business returns (he gets nearly everything back and has won 29% of opponents' service games).
It also could come down to how Berrettini handles the occasion.
Djokovic recalled what it felt like to participate in a Slam final for the first time. He was 20 and lost to Roger Federer in three tight sets, including two tiebreakers, at the 2007 U.S. Open.
“I was just so thrilled to be in the finals,” Djokovic said. “I was close. I had a good match against Roger, but I just probably did not, maybe, believe enough, I guess, in the victory at certain moments when the scoreline was close.”
Self-confidence is not an issue these days for Djokovic. Nor should it be for the 34-year-old from Serbia.
If Berrettini feels good about himself after running his current winning streak to 11 matches, all on grass courts, including a title at the Queen's Club tuneup last month — the first man since Boris Becker in 1985 to take the trophy in his debut appearance there — imagine how Djokovic sees himself at the moment.
The numbers, and the dominance, are truly staggering.
He's won his past 18 sets, every one since dropping his first of the fortnight.
He's won his last 20 matches at Wimbledon, dating to the start of the 2018 tournament.
He's won his last 20 matches in Grand Slam action, dating to the start of this season, with titles at the Australian Open in February on hard courts and at the French Open in June on red clay (where he beat Berrettini in the quarterfinals).
If Djokovic adds another title on Wimbledon's grass Sunday, that will put him three-fourths of the way to a calendar-year Grand Slam, something only two men have done, most recently Rod Laver in 1969.
Imagine the hype — and pressure — heading to New York, where the U.S. Open begins Aug. 30.
Then there's the more immediate “history that is on the line,” to use Djokovic's phrase after he defeated Denis Shapovalov 7-6 (3), 7-5, 7-5 in the semifinals: the chance to pull even with Big Three rivals Federer and Rafael Nadal for the most Slam trophies earned by a man.
Djokovic could put what would be a sixth championship — and third in a row — at the All England Club alongside his nine at Melbourne Park, three at Flushing Meadows and two at Roland Garros.
And it would give him eight of the past 12 majors.
“The biggest challenge and the biggest task is always how to be present and how to stay in the moment regardless of the possibilities, the hypotheticals, and various options that are out there,” Djokovic said two days before Wimbledon began. “There is always something on the line, I feel like, for me — probably Roger and Rafa, as well — when it comes to the tennis history in the last couple of years."
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