ON THE balcony of the players’ enclosure, a familiar figure moved from one television interview to the next with the grace he hopes to display while retaining his Wimbledon crown.
Novak Djokovic was back in SW19 yesterday. Ominously, the champion described himself as “100 per cent prepared” despite having played so little on grass recently.
Djokovic has stayed out of the spotlight since his surprise final defeat in four sets to Stan Wawrinka at Roland Garros. So much so that he was described as emerging from hiding yesterday to fulfil his media responsibilities as defending champion on the eve of The Championships.
He was a vision of hard-to-miss Persil-white immaculateness, even when asked to discuss the dark arts of cheating. There has been a minor kerfuffle ignited by some comments Boris Becker, his coach, made in an interview over the weekend. The German has admitted coaching his charge from the players’ box, something which is forbidden. Djokovic was predictably assured with his reply.
These helpful hints were simply looks of “reassurance and encouragement” rather than hand signals identifying where next to hit his serve. “With all the cameras pointed at him, I think you would already have noticed,” added Djokovic sardonically.
It was always planned he would take some time out after the French Open. It was just that Djokovic hoped to have spent this time basking in the knowledge he had bagged the one Grand Slam title that eluded him, and still does.
He has actually already re-appeared publicly in recent days, having spent the time immediately after his deflating Paris loss recovering in seclusion in Spain. Djokovic then arrived at The Boodles event he routinely plays in prior to Wimbledon by helicopter in the kind of stunt that so often backfires.
Whether it was the real Djokovic who turned up and lost in straight sets to the admittedly up and coming German Alexander Zverev it is difficult to know. It was only an exhibition match after all. But he knows he can ill afford to perform at anything other than top form if he wishes to avoid the ultimate humiliation of being dumped out at the first hurdle today, and on Centre Court.
He faces another German this afternoon in the traditional champion’s 1pm slot – Philipp Kohlschreiber. Djokovic described the No 33-ranked Kohlschreiber as a “very tricky” opponent. He wasn’t trying to exaggerate the challenge faced simply to be polite.
The unpredictable German is a very real and present danger in a draw that has proved unkind to the champion. Djokovic hasn’t allowed himself to look deeper into the tournament. “Well, if you see Kohlschreiber in the first round, I think you have where it is – one match at a time,” he smiled.
It is the first time he had returned as a defending champion. “Obviously I am excited to be part of the biggest, most important tournament in the world again,” he said. “And to play the first match on the Centre Court, it’s a privilege and an honour.”
As for Andy Murray, who he was beaten by in the final two years ago, he will face his long-time rival in the final or not at all. There was no specific mention of Murray in Djokovic’s press conference yesterday, or even Roger Federer, another great rival for the title. But the Serb did labour a point about having “a special connection” to Wawrinka.
Of all the grand slam final opponents he has faced, Djokvoic reckoned this Swiss adversary was the one who treated him with the greatest respect. Perhaps he could afford to given he was the victor.
“I felt something I have never felt before in any grand slam final with any of my rivals that I played against before, this connection with Stan,” said Djokovic. “It was a really tough match but when the match was over, I felt something very special. I thought we shared these unique moments on the court and we showed to the world that we fight for the biggest title, we still have respect for each other and appreciation.
“The way we greeted each other at the net, then after when he came to my bench, I appreciate it very much,” he added. “I think that shows his greatness as well. It is the way it is supposed to be.”
Whether or not this was a slight at Federer or even Murray, with whom relations have deteriorated in recent years, only he knows. But it was a point he seemed at great pains to make since it was contained in the reply to an innocuous question about how long it had taken to get defeat in Paris out of his system.
Clearly, Djokovoic is also alert to some of the publicity regarding Becker’s latest book, in which he focuses on his association with Wimbledon. Or perhaps he has simply spent some of his downtime since Roland Garos reading his coach’s recently published tome.
In Boris Becker’s Wimbledon, the author has some things to say on the relationship between some of today’s greatest players, complaining that they tend to appear to get on when in reality they don’t like each other. Djokovic and Federer, for example, are reported to be far from fast friends but maintain a cordial relationship for appearances’ sake. According to Becker, at least.
It wasn’t like this in his day, when players did not have to pay heed to political correctness. If they didn’t like each other, it showed, claimed Becker. It is actually possible to wonder whether his coach is being more hindrance than help to Djokovic, who spent much of his press briefing yesterday clearing up after Becker. Djokovic described this view of current rivalries as “a wrong connotation”.
It was also erroneous, he added, to try and create a “tense relationship” between the players if none exists. And then he was off. He does after all have some work to do.