Djokovic keeps theatrics brief

 

TENNIS:NOVAK DJOKOVIC paused briefly to assimilate the sights, sounds and smell of Centre Court for the first time in 12 months since winning a first Wimbledon title. The defending champion is afforded the privilege of playing the first match on the most famous swathe of real estate in tennis and the Serbian, world number one, smiled broadly as he made his way courtside in the company of Spain’s Juan Carlos Ferrero.

Champions though aren’t immune to nervous tension as Djokovic illustrated, albeit not initially, in winning the first five points of the match. It should have allowed him to settle into a rhythm but instead he invited Ferrero into the contest with a series of unforced errors.

Djokovic, such a fluent athlete, was temporarily undermined by ragged footwork, making shoddy mistakes that included missing a routine smash and then mistiming a mid-court forehand that careered several feet beyond the baseline. As the Serbian stockpiled errors, Ferrero was gifted Djokovic’s serve on a fourth break point, when the latter slipped while trying to change direction.

The underdog craves opportunity but when it is presented, it is incumbent on him to take it. The Spaniard coughed up his serve in the very next game and at 3-3 won just two more points in losing the set 6-3.

Djokovic hasn’t played a grass court match, an exhibition not withstanding, since last year’s Wimbledon triumph, electing not to tune up on the surface after losing on clay in the French Open final to Rafael Nadal. It may partially explain why he took time to attune to the demands of grass. The second set followed a similar course to its predecessor with an identical score-line.

Djokovic was making fewer mistakes; his timing and movement were less mechanical and more fluid. He rattled off five games in succession. The 32-year-old Ferrero had accepted his fate. His body language bespoke a player who knew he was marking time in a match that had long ceased to be a contest: holding his serve in the sixth game of the set was to be a final hurrah in a 6-3, 6-3, 6-1 loss.

In the immediate aftermath of victory, Djokovic was asked to revisit his thoughts on returning to Centre Court as the defending champion. “It’s a very unique feeling, one that I obviously experienced for the first time in my career. It was great. The grass was untouched, so soft, so smooth.

“You feel the tradition and history of tennis in this tournament and especially on Centre Court. So many legends have won trophies here that made them big stars. It’s quieter . It feels like a theatre in a way but the crowd gets into it when they have a reason.”

He knows that tougher days lie ahead.

Ferrero, may be ranked 38th in the world, but “Mosquito” as he is known, is more accomplished on clay. The Spaniard’s mindset can be gleaned from his response to a question about whether he took encouragement from breaking so quickly in the first set.

“No, I think this can happen at the beginning because you are not in the rhythm of playing matches at the start of a tournament.”

Djokovic spoke at length in his pre-tournament interview about how his rivalry with Nadal and Roger Federer had forced him to become a better player, to look hard at his mental and physical shortcomings and address them; something he was done so successfully in winning three of the last four Grand Slams.

Federer, also making his tournament bow and looking to emulate Pete Sampras’ seven Wimbledon titles, could not have enjoyed a gentler introduction against another Spaniard and clay court specialist Albert Ramos. He dropped just three games in a match that lasted one hour and 19 minutes, winning 6-1, 6-1, 6-1.

The magnitude of the challenge he faced can be gleaned from the fact Ramos’ only previous match on grass was losing a first-round Wimbledon qualifier two years ago to Britain’s Josh Goodall.

Federer took the opportunity to indulge in a little serve and volley practice. He admitted: “I was able to do that a bit more than I thought I could. I was happy with the way things progressed during the match. I was able to return well, almost break him every single time.

“Obviously being up a double break very often, or at least a break, up 30-love on your serve, you don’t feel any pressure doing it. It’s rare to be up in the score-line like today on a regular basis. It is maybe why it is a good time to try it out. Then you can use it in tougher moments, difficult moments, to throw your opponents off. Who knows if I’ll need it down the stretch; we’ll see.”

The defeat of number six seed and 2010 Wimbledon runner-up Tomas Berdych to Latvian Ernests Gulbis offers a reminder of the perils of under-performing, something that Nadal and Andy Murray will be aware of as they make their tournament entrances today.

Nadal will follow the 2011 Ladies singles champion Pera Kvitova on Centre Court while Murray must wait until the Spaniard is finished to enter the maelstrom of local expectation: both men no doubt hoping to ape Djokovic and Federer in the brevity stakes at least.

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