Novak Djokovic determined old guard won't loosen stranglehold on Wimbledon
Young pretenders continue to nip at the heels of Djokovic, Roger Federer and Rafael Nadal but, as the Serbian champion began his defence of his title with a straight-sets win, nibble is all that they do.
The challengers may confess that, watching on TV as boys, they always wanted Federer with his eight titles and counting to lose. They may tease Djokovic over his “great-big-cup-of-love” celebration when the world No 1 wins, and by the way, he’s triumphed four times now. But the new wave don’t get to hoist the pineapple, the pot of gold.
Boris Becker has challenged them: “I won it at 17 - crack on.” And Stefanos Tsitsipas, one of this year’s bright young things, made the pre-tournament admission: “Many of the kids today are lazy.”
This debate will continue until the first champ from outwith the Fantastic Four gets his name engraved on the trophy, something which hasn’t happened since Lleyton Hewitt in 2002.
For the time being, then, the quartet continue to rule the tennis cosmos, seemingly granted special skills by exposure to space dust with mystical properties, just like in the Marvel comic, and the only issue is who assumes the less than debonair persona of Thing.
Philipp Kohlschreiber would not call himself a kid. But at the age of 35 the German went into Monday's match having already beaten Djokovic this year, that win coming at Indian Wells in March, and right away he broke serve. He couldn’t win again, could he?
Seasoned studiers of the Djokovic backside weren’t so sure. His rear-end, the way he squats to receive shots, as if trying to locate a bar stool and possibly the sort used in the first televised Tory leadership debate, has become a Wimbledon fixture.
Rory Stewart looked severely ill at ease shuffling in his seat but Djokovic has his familiar tics and twitches which were all about refamiliarising himself with SW19’s grass, which he duly did.
He broke back immediately and took control of the match, hitting the ball harder and truer than Kohlschreiber, who wasn’t performing badly at all, but then he was facing a man on a mission: the man who returned from his own injury woes to win Wimbledon again; who played the best match of his career just six months ago to demolish Nadal in the final of the Australian Open; who if he makes it five All-England titles this month will draw level with Bjorn Borg on the all-time list.
If that comes to pass, which would leave him with only Pete Sampras and Federer to catch, then Djokovic would surely repeat the feat from his first triumph of eating a clump of the sacred green stuff, even though such melodramatic gestures don’t win him the unconditional love of everyone.
He could have munched grass towards the end of the first set, having slipped and landed face down at the back of the court while trying to retrieve a shot. Now, as every fan of the original Fantastic Four knows, Reed Richards could elongate his body like it was made of rubber. As every tennis fan knows, Djokovic can do something similar and the ball was indeed returned.
In the second set Kohlschreiber actually upped his game, again achieving an early break, but still it wasn’t enough for Djokovic was soon reviving another familiar pose from his repertoire: the Bambi-like splits he effects when required to change direction ultra-quickly.
After his 6-3 7-5 6-3 win, Djokovic paid tribute to his opponent, who had given him a testing workout for what had been a special day. “It is the greatest honour probably in our sport to play as defending champion on untouched grass,” he said.
“There’s a lot happening when you come to Centre Court as the holder. Regardless of the fact I have experience of that … I’m still a human being like anybody else. I do feel nerves and I had a great quality tennis player across the net who is very dangerous. The break in the first game wasn’t the start I was looking for but I think I came back with the right intensity and answered really well. From that moment on I played a pretty good match. I’m overall satisfied.”
Djokovic also had warm words for Goran Ivanisevic, the 2001 champion who has just joined his coaching team. “He’s a great guy, a top player for many years, a coach for three guys I’ve played many times and so it’s nice to have him on my side of the net.” Ivanisevic is Croatian but Djokovic said that “everyone from the region was supporting him when he was playing - he was a hero of mine”.
Future opponents may worry that Ivanisevic could be about to stretch Djokovic’s talents still further, taking them into a different stratosphere. And they probably won’t believe that stuff about him being human.