Queen’s 2018: Novak Djokovic heads to SFs and milestone win No800

Novak Djokovic seals his 800th career win as he beat France's Adrian Mannarino 7-5 6-1 to reach the semi-finals at Queen's Club

Novak Djokovic
Novak Djokovic in action at Queen's Club Photo: Marianne Bevis

Novak Djokovic may not have played on grass since his retirement in the quarter-finals at Wimbledon last year, and he may not have played in the Queen’s singles draw for eight years. But that would have been hard to tell from the quality of the 12-time Major champion and former No1 in London this week.

And as if to press home the point, he would pass a significant milestone as he edged into the semi-finals for the first time since he was runner-up here in 2008. He became the 10th player in the Open era to win 800 matches, and only the third active player to do so after Roger Federer and Rafael Nadal.

Djokovic’s journey through the last 12 months has been well documented, of course. Back at Wimbledon last year, the then No2 had been struggling with an elbow problem through the weeks leading up to the grass swing, and finally gave up on the season to try and recover physically for a fresh start in 2018.

He attempted his return this January at the Australian Open, but then resorted to surgery, and lost his openers in Indian Wells and Miami as he tried to rebuild his fitness and confidence. And then on clay, it began to come together—the semis at the Rome Masters and the quarters at Roland Garros.

Eager to build on his string of wins, and prepare for Wimbledon, where he has been a three-time champion, he took a wild card into the Fever-Tree Championships, where he had played just three times before.

Since his last visit in 2010, when he won his solitary doubles title, he had often kept his transition between Roland Garros and Wimbledon low key, maybe playing an exhibition event but no tournament either here or at the Queen’s sibling in Halle—where, incidentally, he reached the final in his only appearance, in 2009.

Yet playing this year in London with a wild card, it has been as though he was never away. His quick footwork, his precision baseline striking, his clear tactics, and increasingly his willingness to move forward in the court, professed his fine grass-court skill, though he admitted that his proficiency on and affection for the green stuff had taken a while to blossom.

“At the beginning of my career, I was thinking that grass isn’t the surface for me, never going to fit my game so well… But over the years, I have been forced to learn how to play on it, and winning Wimbledon several times just built that confidence of being on the grass, and I love it now. The first day I already feel that I adjusted to the surface, that I got familiar with it.”

He sailed past John Millman for the loss of only three games, but was expected to have more difficulty against the former Queen’s champion and junior Wimbledon champion, No2 seed Grigor Dimitrov. He did not.

The Djokovic serving, in particular, shone. Take the first set: Only once did he lose more than one point in a service game—when he held to 30. And as soon as Dimitrov showed any weakness, two double faults when serving to save the set, Djokovic pounced. It was clinical, efficient, impressive. But the second set was even better.

Until he served for the match, two breaks to the good, 5-1, Djokovic showed no weakness at all, but then it became clear just how much he wanted this win. It would take 14 points, three double faults, and one break point before he eventually held for victory, after little more than an hour.

Those nerves in the final game, he admitted, were inevitable in what he knew was a statement match:

“It was important match for me for various reasons. Obviously, I didn’t win too many big matches in the last 12 months. I’m still kind of finding my form. This was a great test playing against one of the top players of the world, a player that I guess prefers this surface the most.

“It was just a great challenge that I was looking forward to. I was very focused. I was very determined to play my best, especially after a great performance in the first round and managed to deliver.”

But asked if he believed he could win Wimbledon, he was clear:

“Well, let’s not get ahead of ourselves too early. I mean, I had two great matches so far, and I’ll just keep my focus here. I’m definitely not one of the favourites in Wimbledon, so I’ll just try to keep it humble.”

In truth, though, it was hard to see him being too troubled by the 26-ranked Adrian Mannarino, even though the Frenchman was close to his career-high ranking and had a game suited to grass—not a powerful game, but with touch, variety, spin and more.

The Frenchman had yet to meet a seeded player, and of course Djokovic was not seeded, either, but he posed an altogether different challenge from either Dan Evans or Julien Benneteau. And even when not at his best at Wimbledon last year, Djokovic beat Mannarino in straight sets.

However, the French left-hander got off to a swift start with a quick break, and held on to lead 3-1. Gradually, though, Djokovic got his range, and began to dominate. Mannarino resisted a handful of break points in the eighth game, but was finally bowed, and then Djokovic broke again. He went on to serve out the set, 7-5.

And from that point, Mannarino never really looked in the match, as Djokovic dragged him hither and thither with his familiar penetrating accuracy to the baseline corners. He broke in the fourth game, broke again in the sixth, and despite a glimmer of a chance in seventh game, Mannarino’s only break point of the set, Djokovic slammed the door after an hour and 19 minutes, 6-1.

And so he reaches 800 wins, and will be the favourite to make it 801 in the semi-finals, where he will play another Frenchman, Jeremy Chardy, ranked 61, who beat Frances Tiafoe, 6-4 6-4, in under and hour and a half.

Chardy, it should be said, arrived at Queen’s with one of the best records on grass this year so far, now 12/13 matches through three weeks, winning the Surbiton Challenger, and making the final in s-Hertogenbosch. But with a 0-10 deficit against Djokovic, including twice in straight sets at Wimbledon, the odds are not in his favour.

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