Novak Djokovic of old makes an ominous return

Novak Djokovic on the way to a straight sets victory over Ernests Gulbis. Picture: PA
Novak Djokovic on the way to a straight sets victory over Ernests Gulbis. Picture: PA
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Like a shark loitering offshore as the holidaymakers frolic in the water, there is a dark shape moving through the bottom half of the draw. It is hard to make out but it looks ominously like the Novak Djokovic of old.

Yesterday, he came through what could have been the trickiest of tricky third-round encounters, beating Ernests Gulbis 6-4, 6-1, 7-6.

Gulbis is blessed with a unique talent but he is also burdened with an overactive brain. For some, the daily grind of practice, match play and recovery is more than enough but for the Latvian, the son of a billionaire father and an actress mother, the appeal soon wanes. He likes to kick back and enjoy himself. Couple that with a host of recent injuries and his career path has been a series of peaks – he was world No.10 three years ago – and troughs (he currently sits at No.589 in the world).

Knowing this, Djokovic was on his guard from the start. He was also very much on edge, having a ruck with the umpire as he was dropping his serve in the third game and grimacing and muttering as Gulbis sprinted to a 4-2 lead.

But then, as only Gulbis can, he went off the boil. He donated his serve and, with it, his lead with a truly dreadful service game and that was the only encouragement Djokovic needed. A run of nine consecutive games earned him the first set and most of the second and, by that time, the Serb’s pulse rate had settled. He was calm and he was playing well.

“I’m delighted with what I achieved today,” Djokovic said. “I raised the level of tennis. Comparing to the first couple of matches and the last couple of weeks, I think this was the most focused I was on the court and obviously at the right time because Gulbis, he is a great challenge. He is very unpredictable and he’s got a huge serve. The average is around 125, 140 mph.

“He started very well, he was a break up but then I managed to win seven or eight games in a row and that gave me a lot of confidence.

“Just in general, I’m very pleased with the way I felt and the way I played.”

Even when Gulbis got himself back into the match in the third set, Djokovic did not blink. By now, he was playing very well indeed and no matter how flashy some of the Latvian’s winners were, the world No.4 was playing smart. Gulbis had cut down on his unforced errors but Djokovic was drawing more forced errors from the Latvian’s racket.

When, in the tiebreak, the former champion let out two almighty roars as he won another couple of points, the Centre Court crowd looked up. Not only was Djokovic playing like the champion of old but the passion, the focus and the intensity seemed to be back. No one had seen that since he was winning the French Open last summer. And for the rest of the men left in the draw, that was an ominous sign indeed.

Jo-Wilfried Tsonga will not be among them. He saw his Wimbledon hopes killed off inside five minutes yesterday.

The popular Frenchman had trailed American Sam Querrey 6-5 on Friday in the deciding set of their third-round match, when fading light meant play was halted. When they returned to Court Two to complete the match, Tsonga instantly dropped serve to lose the contest 6-2, 3-6, 7-6 (7/5), 1-6, 7-5.

Grigor Dimitrov also enjoyed a swift passage into the last 16 after his opponent Dudi Sela withdrew injured.

Dimitrov became the beneficiary of the 11th injury retirement of this year’s singles events when Sela retired on Court Three, trailing 
6-1, 6-1.