And it would take a brave person to doubt the four-time champion’s intent or ability to make it five titles in a fortnight’s time. Now Djokovic, in his constant drive to find something extra in his preparation even after one of the best 12 months of his career, announced the recruitment of former Wimbledon champion Goran Ivanisevic to his team.
The big leftie Croat won here as a wild card after reaching the finals three times, and he appeared at Djokovic’s side for the last day of practice at Wimbledon—the third former champion to have helped the 15-time Major titlist after Boris Becker and Andre Agassi.
The first man to beat in Djokovic’s campaign was expected to be no pushover. Philipp Kohlschreiber, the elegant single-handed German, had a game for grass and had made his only Major quarter-final at Wimbledon. What is more, he had caused an upset at Indian Wells this year to score only his second victory over Djokovic—though the Serb went on to beat him in their subsequent two clay meetings.
But what could Kohlschreiber do over the five-set format to upset the Djokovic rhythm? Well he started in perfect style, using the lush soft grass to dip angled slice and then a perfect drop shot winner. That brought up break point, and another German backhand drew the error, gasps of surprise.
The gasps at each lower-skimming backhand continued into the second game, but Djokovic was quickly into his stride, countered the Kohlschreiber spin, broke back, and served to love for 2-1, coming to the net to show off some sharp volley skills. Was this the Ivanisevic effect already?
A long fourth game resulted in another break for Djokovic—the German’s tactics did not have enough variety, focusing too much on the Serbian backhand—and the champion served out the set, 6-3.
The German applied the same tactics at the start of the second, now mixing it up with pace, and a love hold was followed by a break, 2-0. Djokovic simply countered again, out-pacing the older man, and for every attacking forehand from the German, the Serb found more—and clenched his fist to the crowd after breaking and holding for 2-2.
Kohlschreiber had already run further than the defending champion, but it had profited him little. Yet he drew huge support from the packed Centre Court as he battled back from 0-40 down to hold for 5-4. But he could not do it again, and the penetration and early strikes of Djokovic got their reward, a break in the 11th game. A love hold, and Djokovic had the set, 7-5.
The third set would the last, with Djokovic firmly in control, breaking twice, and dropping just three points on serve to seal the win, 6-3, after just over two hours.
He was afterwards asked whether nerves had taken time to settle. He agreed:
“There’s a lot happening obviously when you step into the court as defending champion. The importance of this tournament… regardless of the fact that I have experience, I’ve played on this court many times… But still I’m a human being as anybody else. I do feel nerves. At the same time, I had a great quality tennis player across the net who is very dangerous.
“Of course, the first match, you slip a few times, still kind of finding the right position on the court, the right place. But I’m overall satisfied.”
He next faces the 111 ranked Denis Kudla, but perhaps the biggest question to pursue Djokovic through the draw is not whether he will face one of his familiar, older foes come the final day—and the No2 and 3 seeds, Roger Federer and Rafael Nadal, join their great rival as the top three seeds for the first time since 2012. Nor whether he may face the giant-killing Kevin Anderson who lost to him in the final last year after two marathon efforts to displace Federer and then John Isner in the second longest singles match in history.
Before them, challengers lined up in the shape of a young generation that has been asked time and again when one of them will break the triumvirate at a Major.
Strong candidates sat in the Djokovic half, ranging from the youngest man in the draw, the No21 seed Felix Auger-Aliassime, to the Greek 20-year-old star who leads the tour in match-wins this year, No7 seed Stefanos Tsitsipas, and the most experienced of the trio, No6 seed Alexander Zverev, age 22.
The last of the three could boast three Masters titles and the ATP Finals trophy. Tsitsipas had reached two Masters finals and beat Federer to reach his first Major semi-final in Australia. But in the quarter-finals of Queen’s he was soundly beaten by Auger-Aliassime and afterwards pronounced that he may never be able to beat his fast-rising young rival.
And the teenage Canadian with sparkling all-court power certainly proved his worth in his debut main draw here, in a gripping first match against compatriot Vasek Pospisil. He came back from losing the first set to win in four, 5-7, 6-2, 6-4, 6-3.
The other two rangy young players had even bigger fights on their hands. Tsitsipas faced Thomas Fabbiano, who he beat in the third round here last year in the Greek’s break-out Major run to his first last 16. The Italian had grass form, the semis in Eastbourne, and his nimble all court movement and powerful forehand opened up the court to take the first set, 6-4.
After a toilet break to calm things down, the Greek hit straight back, 6-3, only to concede the next set, 4-6. A tense fourth set ended in a tie-break, with Fabbiano pulling back from 5-2 down and two set points to work two match points, but the Greek proved his resilience to withstand the defeat and take the set, 7-6(8).
However, another break by Fabbiano in the seventh game was all he needed, and a dejected Tsitsipas had no answer: He dropped serve once more, 6-3, to exit the tournament.
Zverev also had a tough draw, facing the huge fire-power of the dangerous Jiri Vesely. The Czech was currently down at 124 but had been inside the top 40 and was, like Zverev, a former world junior champion. Last year, he reached the last 16 here, and despite losing the first set, he produced his trademark power tennis to pressure the young German and sweep the next three sets, 6-3, 6-2, 7-5.
He said of his victory:
“I think I played an unbelievable match without many mistakes and put Sascha under pressure. I was serving good and trying to go to the net, and it worked today.”
It certainly did, 38 winners from 45 charges.
So from the young players, attention had to turn once more to the old guard. Anderson, who had played just a dozen matches this year, and only once since the Miami Masters as he contended with an elbow injury, looked as though he had never been away. He played the dangerous No39-ranked Pierre-Hugues Herbert, but sailed past the Frenchman in just an hour and three-quarters 6-3 6-4, 6-2, posting 40 winners for 18 errors, and winning 10-11 points at the net.
It was a similar story for another of the older generation, three-time Major champion Stan Wawrinka. Grass has never been the Swiss man’s most successful surface but he dismissed qualifier Ruben Bemelmans in under an hour and a half, 6-3 6-2, 6-2.
Feliciano Lopez continued his grass love affair as a wild card here with a swift opening win over Marcos Giron, 6-4, 6-2, 6-4, after storming to both the singles and doubles titles at Queen’s last week. The new Madrid Masters tournament director, at the age of 37, is making a record 70th Major appearance at the tournament where he has enjoyed the most success, three quarter-finals.
And yet another over-30, No23 seed Roberto-Bautista Agut, was the first man of the day through to the second round, a 6-3, 6-2, 6-3 winner over Peter Gojowczyk.
More 30-somethings to go through included Fernando Verdasco, Ivo Karlovic, Andreas Seppi, Jeremy Chardy, and Janko Tipsarevic.
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BIOGRAPHY: Ethan Hazard
BIOGRAPHY: Daniel Sturridge