Novak Djokovic knew he was in a bind against Hubert Hurkacz. A little bit off his 'A' game against a Polish player ranked 60 in the world who knew that only a slash and burn performance against the champion would give him any hope. The top seed's third round match for almost two hours became a game of patience.
Hurkacz hit his big serves and he hit his flat ground strokes and for a lot of the first few sets he rocked Djokovic and knocked him out of kilter. It had all the look of a five set epic.
There are always matches for defending champions that test their survival mechanisms and that are ground out more than won especially when they are not feeling it on court. Djokovic found himself in endurance mode, staying in the match but unable to ratchet it up to a level where his opponent would struggle to breath in the thin air.
It didn’t begin well for Djokovic when he was not permitted to wear a cap that he had worn in previous games because it violated Wimbledon’s white clothing rule. The cap had a black lining and was deemed illegal.
That sparked a frisky debate with the umpire leaving Djokovic clearly unhappy about the perceived lack of consistency in the rule’s application. That disaffection spread to his tennis with 13 of his 39 unforced errors coming in the first set, 12 in the second.
The 32-year-old Serb finally prevailed 7-5 6-7 (5-7) 6-1 6-4 against the 22-year-old Pole, who he had beaten in straight sets at the French Open in June. He smiled at the end, a first week in Wimbledon smile.
“I tried to focus on one point at a time, I just wanted to hold my serve and make him play,” said Djokovic. “I played the perfect third set and also my fourth set was solid. I’m really pleased with the performance.”
With Hurkacz fired up, the first set went with the serve until Djokovic finally managed to break on the fourth break point to go 6-5 up. Frustration was clearly creeping into his play and even with three break points he couldn’t convert one, with the Pole invigorating the crowd with his all court acrobatics and some eye catching rallies
Hurkacz took it to a tie-break, winning that 7-5, restoring parity and his confidence. But that is where his charge fell off the edge and where Djokovic picked up tempo and accuracy, taking control of the match.
The top seed finally wrapped up the third set 6-1 in just 25 minutes and the fourth 6-4 in 38 minutes. But it was the hat that drew people’s attention.
“Very simple. Last match, actually second round on Centre Court, I was starting to unpack my hat. The chair umpire said he needs to check whether or not I’m able to play with it. He got a confirmation that I’m able to play. So I got the permission,” said Djokovic.
“I played with the hat. The same hat I took out now, I was not able to play with it. That’s why I was just questioning that call. I mean, no one has approached me before the match to tell me, Well, you can’t really play with the hat this match. That’s all.”
Djokovic gave credit to his opponent for pushing him hard, at least for the first two stanzas.
“He pushed me. He served well. He attacked the ball mid-court. He gave it all and played a great quality match, I thought,” added the winner. “I wasn’t really on top of his second serve. I was a bit hesitant in the play, which wasn’t the case in the first two matches. But I think third set was great. Fourth set, as well, very solid.
Match for the fetishists
The Milos Raonic defeat of Reilly Opelka was a match for the fetishists. The All England club, perhaps believing their grass was under threat of being atomised, scheduled the pair out on show court 12. Two booming gents well over six feet and Opelka unofficially seven feet, it was the taller of the two to exit the third round.
Ultimately it was a meek departure from the giant of the tournament, Raonic taking the first set on a tiebreak in 51 minutes and then rifling through sets two and three 6-2, 6-1 also in 51 minutes. Opelka did appear to have some physical issues in the latter part of the match.
It is something Raonic and many of the taller players on tour have had to guard against, especially on hard courts which are set on concrete. Raonic, who has had his share of injuries, pointed that out afterwards.
“And being the only sport that plays on concrete, being that big and that heavy, it’s not the most generous thing,” said the Canadian.
Raonic meets an relatively unknown Argentinean Guido Pella, who captivated Centre Court in the manner he knocked out last year's beaten finalist Kevin Anderson 6-4, 6-3, 7-6 (4). Anderson had his opportunities but could convert only one of nine break points.
“Obviously I didn’t take my chances on break points.That’s probably one of the key stats,” said the beaten fourth seed. “Right from the first game, breakpoint percentage converted was really low today.
“Sometimes just winning a few of those can really change a match. Even though it was straight sets, tennis is a game where a few points can really change the direction of a match.”
Another of the top young players Russia's Karen Khachanov, seeded 10, was also knocked out by 31-year-old Roberto Bautista Agut.