Before the defence of his title began, Novak Djokovic had talked about the “serene and powerful” feeling of losing a match and how, rather than race to the locker-room and get the hell out of town, he remained on court to “connect” with the victor’s warm glow of success.
The first reaction was: when the heck does he lose? The second was: what chance Britain’s James Ward, ranked 177, of making the all-conquering Serb feel serene and powerful and vanquished? Not much of a chance, not really, though Djokovic was put through the inconvenience of a second-set tie-break.
After his 6-0, 7-6 (7-3), 6-4 win, Djokovic said it had been a satisfying start to his attempt to win his 13th major and the fifth on the bounce, something that hadn’t been done since Don Budge in 1938. He’s also going for a calendar Grand Slam, the first since Rod Laver in 1969.
Djokovic described his first nine games, all of them won, as “almost flawless”. Ward, who’d been trying to put into practice tips gleaned from Andy Murray, called the start from his perspective “ugly”. “I spoke to him on the phone for a little while, he was good. I’m not going to give away what he said, just a few tactics that he uses,” Ward added. “The main thing was: try and take those chances when they come. Try and get the crowd involved and get things on your side. Just be attacking. But he [Djokovic] moves great and it’s tough to win a lot of these rallies.
“I won a few but he keeps making you play balls. He returns so deep through the middle of the court and straightaway you’re on the back foot. Even when you get the ball back it’s hard to be aggressive because he’s looking to change direction all the time, making you move.”
After a wet start to the day, the 130th staging of these championships began in bright sunshine with Djokovic taking his opening service game to love. Ward got a huge cheer when his name was announced, a bigger one when he eked out his first point, and when Djokovic was love-40 down in his next game on serve, everyone got terribly excited. Ward had four chances for what would have been an immediate break-back, but he was to play a meek set and couldn’t find the right shot.
For a nervous opponent, Djokovic was just as intimidating when receiving. The rear view, elite-athlete calves tensed in that familiar crouch, was frightening, so goodness knows what the view from the other end of the net was like. Djokovic romped through the rest of the set, clinching it with Ward’s double-fault.
But then, did he get complacent? Does such a thing happen? Three-nil down in the second set, Ward finally won a game. “Perhaps a blip,” was the Djokovic verdict. “I maybe dropped concentration a little bit. I think it was just a matter of time before James won a game.”
Ward raised both hands in acclaim – and relief, no doubt, that the dreaded three-bagels whitewash wasn’t going to happen. It was a winner’s pose and if he was snapped making it, and his opponent was clearly visible in the photograph, then you imagine he’d very much like a copy for his mantelpiece. Some in the crowd copied his gesture and there were huge cheers.
“I knew that the reaction of the crowd, and his own reaction, would be the way it was,” added Djokovic. “That’s when the energy kind of shifted to his side.”
Ward broke the Djokovic serve, levelled to 3-3 and for a few brief moments, we couldn’t be entirely sure these were were going to be mere face-saving consolation points for the plucky homeboy. Ward had chances to break again at 5-5. “Did I feel I had him ruffled? For sure,” he said. “You saw him missing some balls he didn’t miss for the rest of the match, especially the game I held from love-40. That throws everyone off. He’s one of the greatest of all time, but everyone is human. Maybe, with the crowd more involved, he was a bit more upset.”
Did he really think he could win? If he’d grabbed one of those three break-points “it could easily have been different”.
But Ward was chuffed with his performance. “I’m proud of the way I turned it around. I just didn’t want to get back home tonight and regret anything. It was an unbelievable day.”
Djokovic always breezes straight into SW19 without having warmed up on grass – did his opponent detect even a smidgen of rustiness? “Best question of the day, that one.” laughed Ward. “You can watch the champion from courtside and think you know what playing him is going to be like. And then you play him…”