Djokovic through but not without some Korean fuss

Defending champion dropped the second set in his first match on Centre Court

A few slips and trips and falls and splits on the lush back field of Centre Court, an error count that went up in the second set against sparky opposition with little to lose and the first day of the championships at least had some twists and turns.

Other than that, reigning champion Novak Djokovic looked as straight-backed and princely as he normally does against Korea’s latest tennis export, Soon-Woo Kwon.

It wasn’t until the Italian Open where Djokovic appeared back up to full speed after his Covid-enforced break around the Australian Open. Still, the 35-year-old was the pre-tournament favourite coming into Wimbledon despite playing no warm-up event on grass.

As the tradition goes the champion plays in the first Centre Court match of the following year and as such the unlucky player drawn against him faces a kind of ceremonial tumbril ride from the locker room. It isn’t unusual for the top seed to face a few sticky moments and Djokovic was no different as he occasionally sought to end some points too quickly and ended up hitting the ball wide or long.

That frustration continued over the first and second sets where he trailed 3-1 in both and again into the fourth set, several times with the court open to him hitting his forehand long and slapping the strings of his racquet in annoyance.

“He has a lot of quality from both forehand and backhand corner,” said the defending champion. “I did not start or did not play at my best. But I think when I needed to find the right shots, I did. I think [my] serve got me out of trouble in some decisive moments. I know I can do better. But for the first match, I’m pleased and I’ll keep going.”

But with an ‘oven ready’ feel to the match and not playing his best, it was all done in two hours and 27 minutes. That the top seed would advance seemed baked into the cake and while Kwon replied to Djokovic’s 6-3 first set with a feisty 6-3 second to level the match 1-1, the sense never left that it was Djokovic’s day, all played out to the back drop of Kwon’s endearing family members living and dying every point in the player’s box.

As is always the case with the Serb, he was able to rise to the big point and as if by the weight of persona force his opponent to freeze on swing moments. A step up in the third set to break Kwon gave him a 2-1 lead and from there, it was the champion turning the knife to win 6-3, 3-6, 6-3, 6-4.

Closing the match with an ace Djokovic completed his first tremulous steps oblivious to the biblical afternoon rain scattering the entire field outside of roofed Centre and number one courts.

But this year Djokovic was one match away from a calendar grand slam. He was humiliatingly thrown out of Australia for not being properly vaccinated and was beaten by Rafa Nadal in the French Open, who then moved ahead of him in the world rankings. Have you felt ‘bummed out’ Djokovic was asked afterwards.

“I never used that expression, so I don’t know exactly what it means. I can assume what it means,” he said smiling.

“Yes and no. Yes, because I’ve experienced something that I’ve never experienced in my life in Australia. So, this post-Australian period of next several months was challenging emotionally for me because of a lot of different factors.

“In terms of my motivation on the court, fulfilling my everyday chores, trying to win more titles and be one of the contenders for more Grand Slams, it hasn’t changed much, to be honest. But, of course, the sensation coming back on the court with everything that happened post-Australia, particularly first few tournaments, was different. It was a different feel. Not very pleasant to me.

On number one court a minor epic unfolded with one of the game’s leading teenagers, Carlos Alcarez, the number five seed, took over four hours to beat German Jan Lennard Struff. The hopes of the Spanish 19-year-old hung on by a thread, although he held out 4-6, 7-5, 4-6, 7-6(3), 6-4 to reach the second round of Wimbledon for the second time.

A lot is expected from Alcarez, who will have taken significant confidence from simply holding out and coming through the match. Like most Spanish players, he was raised playing on clay. Scheduled to play at the Queen’s tournament a few weeks ago, he opted out due to discomfort in his elbow, which was seen wrapped in bandages.

Andy Murray played out a four-set evening match in front of a raucous crowd on Centre Court to reach round two with a 4-6, 6-3, 6-2, 6-4 win over Australian James Duckworth. The veteran Scot, from whom not a great deal is expected this week, struggled to find a coach who would take him and celebrated as though he had won the tournament.

Although the former champion dropped the first set, it was largely a trouble-free journey to see off the younger man.

“Its amazing to be back out here again. Amazing atmosphere,” said Murray, who wowed the crowd with an underarm serve to Duckworth. “I’m getting on a bit now I don’t know how many more opportunities I’ll have, so I want to make the most of it.”

Murray will meet American and former Wimbledon semi-finalist, the huge serving John Isner in the second round.

Johnny Watterson

Johnny Watterson

Johnny Watterson is a sports writer with The Irish Times