Novak Djokovic has Wimbledon in his sights
Djokovic may have played just one 'friendly'Â match on grass ahead of Wimbledon, but he looks ready to become champion and No1 at a stroke
The tension was palpable. The sweep of the Home Counties was deep emerald, verdant from its drenching of rain. This elegant part of England has been suffering, we are told, from drought conditions so the odd downpour was a godsend.
But one man’s meat is another man’s poison. The June had a growing band of tennis enthusiasts””pros and fans alike””desperately checking sky, Twitter and mobiles for news when suddenly, the sun broke out””both literally and metaphorically.
There was the message from the man of the moment: “Hello! On my way to the Stoke Park (TheBoodles) to play exho at 14:30 with Simon. Stuck in the traffic (as usual), hoping we can make it on time.”
The Tweeter? Novak Djokovic.
For this was the day when the biggest name in tennis””the man who leads the points race by a mile, the winner this year of seven straight titles and 41 straight matches, and the man many expect to be the new No1 by the time Wimbledon is done””was going public on grass.
The place he had chosen for the launch of his Wimbledon campaign was the quiet, plush and elegant surroundings of an informal round-robin event in the Buckinghamshire countryside. His only problem, it transpired, was not the rain but the traffic between Slough and the Boodles, an analogy begging for an airing: the road from despond to hope.
It is the sixth year in a row that Djokovic has used this event to fine-tune his Wimbledon preparation.
Back then, in 2006, he had just broken into the world’s top 40 but would end the year newly in the top 20. He was yet to win his first main tour title but, by the end of the year, he would have two.
He was about to play only his second Wimbledon but had just made his Grand Slam breakthrough with a quarter-final finish at Roland Garros. And by the end of June, he would have reached the fourth round on the All England Club’s hallowed turf.
After his 2007 appearance at the Boodles, Djokovic reached Wimbledon’s semi-finals and, ahead of his 2008 appearance, he reached his first Queen’s final.
Last year, it was the Wimbledon semis again, the start of the best sequence of Grand Slam results in his career: the final of the US Open, winner in Australia and semi-finalist in Roland Garros. Paris was a noteworthy end to an unbroken season just one short of the John McEnroe’s record 42.
This year, he opted out of Queen’s to give himself time to recover both mentally and physically, and the result, by his own admission at the Boodles, is that he feels better than he has ever done coming into Wimbledon: “Yes. Yes, definitely!”
And judging from the kind of tennis he played against a hapless Gilles Simon, he is not far wrong. Even the sun broke out to celebrate. It took Djokovic well short of an hour to demolish the Frenchman, 6-1, 6-2 and if it was meant to be friendly, Simon probably wondered what unfriendly looked like.
From the opening point of the opening game””an ace””it was an exhibition that gave his opponent little room for manoeuvre.
That love game led seamlessly to a 4-0 advantage as his signature backhand down the line came into play.
With his valuable time off after Paris, his movement was looking good, too. He chased down a drop shot with such speed that he vaulted chair and bag to come face-to-face with the front row. A quick shake of the hand with one shocked spectator, and he was back for the next point.
By now, his ground strokes looked their silky best, sliced and spun to each corner with perfect length and pace. The soundtrack of popping champagne corks has never seemed so appropriate.
Simon””ranked 16 in the world, it should be remembered””managed to win the fifth game but was being run ragged while Djokovic was relaxed to the point of horizontal. He glided in for a little net practice, took a few overheads and the set.
The opening game of the second set saw a perfect lob to break Simon. In the fifth game, Djokovic broke again with a devilish drop shot. He even began to have a little banter with the line judges.
As he finished the job””not bothering with the niceties of keeping the match tight””the clouds appeared over centre court again, but the crowd knew they had seen something special, and the man confirmed as much himself:
“I said to Gilles at the net that I never played better in my life on this surface – I need to save some of this tennis for next week”
If his tennis performance had been a dose of sunshine, his comedy performance””reluctantly delivered though it was””warmed the cockles even more. He refused to do a Rafael Nadal impersonation: “He’s going to get angry!” But he tucked in his shirt, bounced behind the baseline and produced a pitch-perfect Maria Sharapova.
And he managed one more boost for British tennis fans. Yes, he admitted, “Nadal and Federer, when it comes to the big events, have a bit of an edge.”Â But he places Andy Murray right behind them. “Yes, he’s definitely right there, right behind them.
“It’s not easy for him with all that pressure he has. He’s a more mature player this year than last year as it was in my case. I’m sure he’s going to do well this year.”
Murray’s biggest problem, though, may end up being Djokovic himself: He will know when the Wimbledon draw is made tomorrow. For looking at the showman turned supreme athlete who was on show in his solitary warm-up match, Djokovic is surely the man to beat.