The Serb’s 2011 season sticks in the mind as one of the most extraordinary ever put together in this demanding sport that pits one individual against another, with no team-mates to share the load, with no time limit and no finish line.
Djokovic’s task was to usurp the stranglehold of two of the highest achievers ever to wield a racket, the two who had dominated the top of the rankings and the Grand Slams since 2004, Roger Federer and Rafael Nadal.
Djokovic made his first Major incursion in Australia in 2008 but it was three years later that everything seemed to click into place. New diet, new training regimes, new confidence and one of the most lithe, flexible physiques in the sport produced a winning machine.
He won not just in Australian but at Wimbledon and the US Open, snatching the No1 ranking in the process. Not content with that, he won five Masters—and reached the final of a sixth—as well as Dubai and Belgrade.
The next year, he won a third Australian title and ended the year with his first World Tour Finals trophy—and reached his first Roland Garros final plus another US Open final.
As for 2013, he repeated in Australia, was a finalist in Wimbledon and, after reaching the final in New York, he went on an unbroken tear through Beijing, Shanghai, Paris and London—though even that could not fend off Nadal’s reclamation of the No1 ranking by year’s end. For in this unforgiving sport, the more points you earn, the more you can lose a year later. Nadal missed the last six months of 2012, and returned to pile on thousands of points with 10 titles. Djokovic could not hope to hold him off.
Come this January, then, it was perhaps to be expected that Djokovic would be starting to flag, and sure enough his three-year dominance in Australia came to an end.
He bounced back with that rare achievement, back-to-back wins in Indian Wells and Miami, but hit a problem when it came to clay: an unexpected wrist injury. He made it through the semis in Monte Carlo—losing to Federer—but had to miss Madrid. He made a strong return, his sights fixed firmly on the one missing Major in his resume, but despite winning Rome, he could not get past the Nadal in the French Open final.
Against this backdrop, then, the news that Djokovic had opted not to play his one and only scheduled grass match ahead of Wimbledon rang alarm bells.
He has chosen the relaxed exhibition format of The Boodles at Stoke Park for his preparation for several years, and he turned up as planned—in a silver Bentley, no less—only to withdraw from his match.
You need to balance and try to have some recovery time, some downtime, which can recharge your batteries mentally most of all
It was billed as ‘a precaution’: having consulted his team, they decided to rest his wrist before Wimbledon. But it has left him as the only man in the top dozen who will play at the All England Club without a single grass match under his belt.
So when he took his place in front of the media this weekend, there was one big question to answer.
“Well, it’s the first time that I have problems with the wrist. I started feeling it before Monte Carlo tournament started. I played that tournament, under strange conditions, under a lot of pain. Decided to skip Madrid, which was a good decision, because I played pain free in Rome and Roland Garros.
“Right now, I don’t feel any pain. But I felt like, you know, when I’m changing surfaces, especially from clay to grass, in the opening few days of the practice here, I get a little bit of a strange sensation in the wrist. Now it’s fine, so hopefully it can stay that way.”
After losing the final in Paris, Djokovic retreated for a recuperative holiday—though his status as one of the most recognised men in tennis ensured he did not escape the attention of the paparazzi. But he talked of how essential such breaks have been in his preparation for big tournaments.
“It’s not the first or the last final that I lost. I’m aware of the fact that as a tennis player playing more or less week after week, you have to get used to winning and losing. It’s important to learn and take the best out of these losses and understand what you did wrong and grow from that experience as a tennis player and as a person.
“Of course, it was a long clay-court season with some good results and some injuries and so forth. It took a lot out of me. I needed, four, five days of rest and trying to get my mind off the tennis… Because as much as we love this sport, as much as we are dedicated and professional, it is important to work hard. [But] on the other hand, you need to balance and try to have some recovery time, some downtime, which can recharge your batteries mentally most of all. That’s what I got, so now I’m very motivated to play Wimbledon.”
That physical transition is difficult for all the players. Many have talked in recent days of the stresses on the back and legs as their bodies adjust to the lower ball, skidding trajectories and fast footwork. Next year, the schedule will change to add an extra week between Roland Garros and Wimbledon, and Djokovic welcomes it.
“I haven’t played either Queen’s or Halle for the last three, four years I think. It’s always better to get a few matches under your belt before you get to Wimbledon… which is totally the opposite of clay courts—the surface on which you have played for two and a half months.
“So from the slowest to the fastest surface, it takes quite a few days and weeks to adjust the movement. I think the movement is crucial basically because on clay you can slide, and here you can’t afford too many big steps.
“All these different factors affect your adjustment, your game. So I’m looking forward to actually having an extra week where I might also play at Queen’s or Halle and have more days to practise on grass.”
But while Djokovic may be missing any sharpening match-play when he opens against Andrey Golubev late Monday afternoon, he won’t be missing any expertise in his camp. This is the first Wimbledon at which he is joined by coach Boris Becker, who won three Wimbledon titles—he is still the youngest ever to win in London, aged 17, in 1985—and Djokovic relishes the prospect:
“I think here where he had most success in his career, we can together have a great two weeks… This is his surface. This is his home. This is where he feels most comfortable.
“Of course, he’s very inspired to convey his messages and try to point out the few objectives and priorities on which I should focus. I’m glad to have Boris as a legend not just of Wimbledon but tennis in general, in my team.
“I felt like the last month and a half has been great. I started to feel more comfortable with him on the court and with him also in the box. The chemistry has been much better now than it was in the start, not because any of us made some mistakes at the start of the relationship, it’s just that it took time for us to get to know each other.
“I won in Rome, was in finals of Roland Garros, so we are happy in which direction we are heading right now. Hopefully we can have another great two weeks here.”
If Djokovic does stand up to the rigours of seven matches to claim the title, he will have done so the hard way. Golubev is not push-over as an opener; Vasek Pospisil is a dangerous young player if he strikes form; Jo-Wilfried Tsonga is a two-time Wimbledon semi-finalist; and the Serb’s possible quarter-final opponent, Tomas Berdych, is a former finalist here. And all that before a possible repeat of last year’s final—except this time it would be a semi-final—against defending champion Andy Murray. And that for a chance, again, to compete for the title.
However, Djokovic is not the top seed for nothing. He, his wrist and Boris will be as ready as they possibly can be.
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