History will have to wait. Or it will for Novak Djokovic. The seemingly unstoppable force of nature that has dominated tennis for the past two years, the pure energy field that is driven by desire and fuelled by dedication, was brought to a grinding halt in the third round yesterday by Sam Querrey.
Querrey, uncharitably regarded as the poor man’s John Isner, served Djokovic out of the tournament 7-6, 6-1, 3-6, 7-6 over the course of two days and four rain delays.
Djokovic came to SW19 hoping to become the second man in history to win five consecutive grand slam titles (the first was Don Budge in 1937-8) and few doubted that he would do it. He had not lost in the third round of a major championship since 2009 and had never lost so much as a set to an American player at Wimbledon. Something, then, obviously ailed the usually confident, resilient Serb. Perhaps the suit of armour that he has built around himself, the one that repels all attacks, ammunition and assaults, was rusting in the rain. But there was more to it than that. Was he feeling fit and well?
“Not really,” he said. “But it’s not the place and time to talk about it. Again, the opponent was playing on a very high level and he deserved to win.”
When pushed on how he had felt in practice yesterday morning, he pulled up the drawbridge – the subject was off limits.
“I just said, I just don’t want to talk about it,” he snapped. “Please respect that. Thank you.”
Winning the French Open last month, completing the non-calendar Grand Slam and his career Grand Slam, could have sapped his motivation levels but Djokovic thought not.
“I knew that mentally it’s not going to be easy to kind of remotivate myself,” he said. “But the importance of this tournament is so immense that you always find ways to really get inspired.”
As stepped back on to Court No.1 yesterday afternoon, he was in deep trouble. Already two sets down to Querrey and his rocket-launcher of a serving arm, he had to make a swift and impressive start.
He had been in much the same position last year in the fourth round against Kevin Anderson, but by the time that match was called off for the night, he had come back from a two-set deficit and stood at two sets apiece. That match had been balanced on a knife edge. This time he was perched on a precipice: one wrong move and he would fall.
When the heavens opened on Friday night, Djokovic could not have been more relieved. That he lost the first set was concerning but that he lost the second set in just 22 minutes was a cause for panic. He was flat, error-prone and every part of his game was out of synch. He could not move on the slick surface, he could not return Querrey’s thumping serves and, most surprisingly of all, he did not know what to do. The match was running away from him at a gallop and he had no fight left in him to put any sort of defence.
But then it rained. He had a night to regroup and come up with a new game plan. But when he hit the practice courts, it seemed that nothing had changed.
For 40 minutes he went through the usual routines – serves, returns, volleys – and then he told his team that the session was over; he had done enough. Boris Becker, his coach and mentor, and Gebhard Phil-Gritsch, one of his physios, had other ideas and sent the defending champion back to the baseline to do more work on his returns. Not that it made much difference; Querrey launched 22 of his 31 aces past Djokovic’s flailing racket yesterday.
The start of the third set should have been everything Djokovic had hoped for – he broke Querrey twice and was 4-0 up when it rained again. Yet that lead was as much to do with Querrey as it was to do with the No.1; the American could not land a forehand in court to save himself. Two hours of drizzle gave him a chance to settle himself and, sure enough, he came back serving better and making fewer errors. He even broke Djokovic’s serve but it was too little, too late to save the set.
It was the fourth set that told the real story. Eleven break points came and went before an increasingly frustrated Djokovic made his breakthrough. At last he could serve for the set, at last he had a chance to get back on level terms at two sets all. And then he surrendered his own serve tamely in a flurry of errors. When the final rain delay stopped him as he was about to serve to stay in the match, he furiously beckoned Becker down to meet him in the locker room. He was on the brink of defeat and he needed help.
Boris followed the boss’s orders but he could not stop his man from making a hash of the tie break and Querrey from delivering the upset of the tournament. History had been stopped in its tracks and Djokovic was not willing to let on why.