Queen’s 2018: Novak Djokovic sets Dimitrov clash: ‘Hopefully I can keep progressing’

Novak Djokovic will take on Grigor Dimitrov in the round of 16 at Queen's Club

Djokovic
Novak Djokovic Photo: Marianne Bevis

Almost exactly a year ago, Novak Djokovic was about to win the Eastbourne title and would go on to reach the quarters at Wimbledon.

The 12-time Major champion and former No1 had been struggling with an elbow problem through the weeks leading up to the grass swing. The toil of the previous 12 months had taken their toll, physically and emotionally—toil that had won him his first French Open, and seen him compete with Andy Murray for the No1 ranking right up to the World Tour Finals in London

But after struggling through the first six months of 2017, Djokovic would finally bow to the inevitable, retire against Tomas Berdych at Wimbledon, and not play another match last year.

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 attempted to work his way back to fitness and confidence. On clay, though, it began to come together: He reached the semis at the Rome Masters and the quarters at Roland Garros.

Even so, he was bitterly disappointed not to have done better, and could not even consider how he would approach the imminent grass swing.

It transpires he did the best thing possible: Took time away with his wife to clear his head:

“I had to just take some time off the court, you know, and just recharge the batteries physically and mentally… It was hiking with my wife with no kids for five days, if you really want to know!

“We were very far away from any tennis court, in nature, and it was the best way to clear the mind and just also have a possibility to slow down… Sometimes you need to just slow down and have time for yourself to think about things, to understand your emotions and what you’re going through. I managed to just kind of recalibrate and get back on the court.”

And he chose to do it in a way he had not done for eight years: at The Queen’s Club with a wild card into the newly titled Fever-Tree Championships, a tournament he had played just three times before, reaching the final in 2008.

He had been practising for days before his opening match against John Millman, and if there had been any doubts about his physical shape, and his fondness for the grass, they were quickly dispelled. An hour later, he had swept his way to the second round for the loss of just three games, 6-2, 6-1.

It was as though he had never been away, and he summed it up perfectly:

“Yes, it was a good match. I mean, all in all, I can’t really talk about too many negatives. Today, everything, the focus was there, right intensity every shot. Every shot was working really beautifully.”

Millman held his own, just, for the first five games, but then the accurate, net-skimming baseline strikes from Djokovic began to make inroads as he ran Millman ragged.

The current world No22 broke to lead 4-2, broke again, and sealed the first set, 6-2, in just 28 minutes.

Djokovic’s serving, too, was clearly in very fine shape. He dropped only two points in 26 on his first serve—and he served at 76 percent, too. And with forays to the net, and pinpoint placement down each line into the corners, it became a hopeless task for Millman. Midway through the second set, the Australian qualifier came off second best again in the longest rally of the match, and simply bent double in despair at the back of the court.

In the second set, Djokovic dropped just one point on serve, and would convert three break chances to affirm his stranglehold on the match: It was clean, it was efficient, and it took him into the second round, 6-1.

There, though, things are a good deal tougher: Rather than a 63-ranked qualifier, Djokovic will face No2 seed Grigor Dimitrov, the 2014 champion here. Grass is the Bulgarian’s favourite surface, but Djokovic has beaten him in six of their seven meetings, including their only one on grass, at Wimbledon in 2014.

No wonder Djokovic exuded confidence after his Millman match.

“It takes some time to really adjust to this surface. And I had that, so I had a wonderful start of the tournament.

“I feel that in the last three tournaments basically my level of tennis has improved and I start to feel comfortable with my game… So a match against Dimitrov obviously is a very good challenge for both of us, especially me at this time, with not too many matches under my belt in this year. He has won here, so after today’s performance, convincing performance, I feel confident to step out on the court and go for a win.”

He has a day off from singles, but will attempt to emulate his doubles success here—his only doubles title in 2010—with Stan Wawrinka this afternoon.

Paul Merson
Paul Merson predicts the winner of Chelsea FC v Man City
Michael Owen
Michael Owen explains his prediction for Man United v Aston Villa
Michael Owen
‘Too strong here’: Michael Owen predicts the winner of Chelsea FC v Man City
Jurgen Klopp
Paul Merson reveals his prediction for Brentford v Liverpool FC
Gary Lineker
Gary Lineker sends message to Bruno Fernandes after Man United’s 1-0 loss to Aston Villa
Paul Merson
Paul Merson predicts the winner of Chelsea FC v Man City
Michael Owen
Michael Owen explains his prediction for Man United v Aston Villa
Michael Owen
‘Too strong here’: Michael Owen predicts the winner of Chelsea FC v Man City
Jurgen Klopp
Paul Merson reveals his prediction for Brentford v Liverpool FC
Gary Lineker
Gary Lineker sends message to Bruno Fernandes after Man United’s 1-0 loss to Aston Villa
Top 50 Muslim footballers: Arsenal, Chelsea FC, Liverpool FC and Man United stars feature
Top 50 Muslim footballers: Arsenal, Chelsea FC, Liverpool FC and Man United stars feature