Wimbledon Returns, Djokovic Begins Quest For Grand Slam No. 20

Novak Djokovic (photo: @Wimbledon/Twitter)

LONDON/WASHINGTON, June 28, 2021 (by Michael Dickens)

After 715 days, the wait was finally over. The 134th edition of the Wimbledon Championships commenced – sort of. Thank goodness for the covered roofs over Centre Court and No. 1 Court.

Under the closed Centre Court roof, reigning champion Novak Djokovic began defense of his 2019 Wimbledon gentlemen’s title against British No. 7 and 253rd-ranked Jack Draper just past 1:30 p.m. Monday afternoon. It came about half an hour after women’s No. 2 seed Aryna Sabalenka began the fortnight across the grounds on No. 1 Court against qualifier Monica Niculescu.

Meanwhile, on the outer courts, the tarpaulins covered the lush green grass courts of the All England Club from a rain that fell steadily over London until mid-afternoon and backed up Monday’s order of play into the British evening. By 3 p.m., 21 of the original 64 matches had been cancelled for the day. However, at 3:45 p.m., the outer courts were finally put into play as temperatures hovered around 21º Celsius and skies remained cloudy but finally dry.

Inside Centre Court, Draper, 19, was making his Wimbledon main draw debut against Djokovic, 35, the five-time Wimbledon champion and winner of the last two majors, who was in pursuit of his third straight Wimbledon crown. No pressure, right? While Draper, a hugely talented and likable youngster, will one day carry the flag for British tennis in the same manner that Tim Henman and Andy Murray have before him, on this 2021 Opening Day with the Duke of Kent sitting in the Royal Box, it was a day for Djokovic to shine and the young Brit to learn and absorb the atmosphere – and appreciate the thunderous applause he received when he left the court a hero even in defeat.

Although Djokovic slipped twice and found himself down a break at 4-3 in the opening set, the Serbian righted himself as the match wore on and the World No. 1 and top seed won 4-6, 6-1, 6-2, 6-2 in two hours to move into the second round. It was Djokovic’s 28th match victory of the season in 31 outings and it keeps alive his bid to become the fifth player in history to win the first three Grand Slams of the season. The last to achieve the feat was Rod Laver in 1969.

Draper, coming off of a quarterfinal showing at the cinch Championships two weeks ago and making his Wimbledon main draw debut, showed a rock-solid backhand early on and won the opening set 6-4, much to the delight of the reduced-capacity crowd, who hoped for an upset. He would go on to hit 26 winners and make 27 unforced errors.

However, the World No. 1 and top-seeded Djokovic found his feet after the first set and with it his balance. He went to work and gave a master class in serving. Djokovic won 83 percent of his service points – losing just seven points on his first serve – and effortlessly served up 25 aces and hit 47 winners. He converted six of 15 break points and outpointed Draper 117-74. It all added up to Djokovic’s 73rd career win at Wimbledon.

“It feels great seeing everyone and being back on one of the most sacred and special tennis courts in the world,” Djokovic said during his on-court interview. “I’m very happy I am able to speak to you after the match; I’ve never done that before. Obviously, along with a lot of other players, I was very sad that Wimbledon was cancelled [last year]. It was a difficult time for everyone. I’m really glad the sport is back and, hopefully, you guys have enjoyed [the match] and will enjoy the next couple of weeks.”

Djokovic’s sentiment was received with appreciative applause from the crowd of 7,000. When he was asked to comment about Draper, his rookie opponent who fought to the very end, Djokovic smiled and was clearly impressed: “He definitely deserves a round of applause. He’s a youngster, only 19; I hadn’t seen him play too much prior to Queen’s that he played pretty well – won a couple of matches against high-ranked players.

“You know, walking onto the Wimbledon’s Centre Court for the first time, I think [Jack] has done extremely well. He carried himself very maturely on the court, he behaved well, he backed himself, he believed that he could come back. I think he deserves credit for that and I wish him all the best for the rest of his career.”

By the end of the interview, Djokovic got sentimental. “It was a huge honor to walk onto this court for me, the most special court,” he said.

“I always dreamed of playing in Wimbledon, winning Wimbledon one day when I was a kid growing up in Serbia. I try not to take anything for granted every time I step onto this court. I feel the history, feel the tradition. I’ll just take it one day at a time.”

Good day to be an American on a show court

Both No. 1 Court and Centre Court were ripe for upsets and a pair of Americans, Frances Tiafoe and Sloane Stephens, delivered the knock-out punches.

First, an in-form and inspired Tiafoe, who recently reached the quarterfinals at The Queen’s Club and also won a title on grass at the Nottingham Challenger, succeeded in beating No. 3 seed Stefanos Tsitsipas, 6-4, 6-4, 6-3, in two hours and two minutes on No. 1 Court. It’s quite an improvement over his first-round loss in 2019 to Fabio Fognini and it represented Tiafoe’s first Top Five win in his career in 12 attempts.

How good did the victory taste to Tiafoe? “Pretty damn good,” he replied during an on-court interview. “It was definitely one of my best [wins], from start to finish it was pretty clean. If you want to play against the best, this is what you train for, this is what it’s all about. I live for these kinds of moments.”

The No. 57 Tiafoe overcame 15 aces by Tsitsipas to hit eight of his own that went with 43 winners. He saved all seven break points he faced and broke the World No. 4 Greek star four times in eight opportunities. Although Tsitsipas hit 35 winners, he never found his form on grass and committed 22 unforced errors. Tiafoe outpointed Tsitsipas 97-84.

Soon, after Tiafoe’s triumph, Stephens was victorious on Centre Court against the two-time Wimbledon champion Petra Kvitova, 6-3, 6-4, in an hour and 17 minutes. It was the lone first-round match pairing two former Grand Slam champions and it was Stephens’ first grass-court match of the season – and in two years – after she withdrew last week at Bad Homburg with a foot injury.

Stephens, who is playing in her ninth Wimbledon and reached the quarterfinals in 2013, was broken in the first game of the match but never again lost her serve. She won 78 percent of her first-serve points, converted three of five break points, took advantage of 20 unforced errors and outpointed the No. 10 seed Kvitova 64-52. She was near flawless. The Czech star was unable to figure out Stephens’ counterpunching excellence. She hit just eight winners while compiling 20 unforced errors.

While drawing a two-time Wimbledon champion as a first-round opponent might not have seemed ideal at first, Stephens, who improved to 13-8 at The Championships, made the most of her opponent. She said: “I thought, ‘Oh, boy! It’s going to be a difficult task.’ Then, knowing I would be on Centre Court and feeling good, I was excited to play against Petra. She’s an amazing player and knowing there would be some fans, again, was really incredible.

“Not playing on grass for two years and then being able to come back in my first match on grass on Centre Court and with fans was just a dream. I’m excited to be back here competing.”

Around the All England Club

• Although Romanian qualifier Monica Niculescu will get credit for scoring the first point of the Wimbledon fortnight, credit No. 2 seed Aryna Sabalenka for recording the first victory of this year’s Championships. The World No. 4 from Belarus easily beat the No. 191 Niculescu, 6-1, 6-4, in an hour and 16 minutes on No. 1 Court with the roof closed. Sabalenka fired six aces, won 68 percent of her first serves, hit 48 winners to 30 unforced errors and converted five of 11 break points while outpointing Niculescu 70-45.

The crowd clearly was in Sabalenka’s favor – it was her first Wimbledon win in four years – and she acknowledged the fans afterward during her post-match interview.

“I was a little bit nervous to open this court,” Sabalenka admitted on court after her victory. The win was just her second main-draw win at Wimbledon and first since her 2017 debut when she beat Irina Khromacheva. “I actually never played on the [show courts] at Wimbledon. I’m happy to be here today. I’m happy with this win match. Monica was a tough opponent to play against. Guys, thank you so much for supporting helping me get over my nerves today.”

Next, Sabalenka will face 219th-ranked British wild card Katie Boulter, who rallied to beat 239th-ranked American qualifier Danielle Lao, 6-7 (6), 6-3, 6-4.

Garbiñe Muguruza, the 2017 Wimbledon ladies’ champion, played like a champion during her dominating 6-0, 6-1 victory over Fiona Ferro of France in 49 minutes on Court No. 2. The 11th seed Muguruza won 76 percent of her first-serve points and 88 percent of her second-serve return points against Ferro. The former World No. 1, who is now ranked 12th, converted seven of 10 break and outpointed Ferro 54-20. Next, Muguruza will play 174th-ranked qualifier Lesley Pattinama Kerkhove of the Netherlands, who took out two-time Grand Slam champion Svetlana Kuznetsova of Russia, ranked 40th, 6-3, 6-3, for her first major main-draw win.

• Other women’s seeds advancing include: No. 4 Sofia Kenin of the United States, who beat qualifier Wang Xinyu of China, 6-4, 6-2; No. 7 Iga Swiatek of Poland, who was a 6-4, 6-4 winner over Hsieh Su-Wei of Taiwan; No. 18 Elena Rybakina of Kazakhstan, who prevailed over Kristina Mladenovic of France, 6-4, 6-0; No. 23 Madison Keys of the United States, who defeated British qualifier Katie Swan, 6-3, 6-4; and No. 32 Ekaterina Alexandrova of Russia, who bested Laura Siegemund of Germany, 6-1, 6-3. Among the seeded upsets was No. 29 Veronika Kudermetova of Russia, who lost to Viktorija Golubic of Switzerland, 3-6, 6-1, 11-9.

• Among the men’s seeds who advanced were: No. 5 Andrey Rublev of Russia, who beat Federico Delbonis of Argentina, 4-6, 6-4, 6-1, 6-2; No. 8 Roberto Bautista Agut of Spain, who defeated John Millman of Australia, 6-2, 3-6, 6-3, 7-6 (4); and No. 25 Karen Khachanov of Russia, who beat American qualifier Mackenzie McDonald, 3-6, 6-3, 6-4, 7-6 (3).

There were a few men’s seeds who were upset: No. 19 Jannik Sinner of Italy lost to Marton Fucsovics of Hungary, 5-7, 6-3, 7-5, 6-3; No. 27 Reilly Opelka of the United States fell 6-4, 7-6 (3), 6-2 to Dominik Koepfer of Germany; and No. 30 Alejandro Davidovich Fokina of Spain was defeated by American qualifier Denis Kudla,  5-7, 4-6, 7-6 (4), 6-3, 6-3.

Monday’s Wimbledon results

A Wimbledon like no other

On Centre Court just before the start of the Novak Djokovic-Jack Draper match, there was a standing ovation and sustained applause after it was announced that some of the key people, including Dame Sara Gilbert, who developed the AZ Covid vaccine were seated in the Royal Box.

By the numbers

• Great Britain’s Jack Draper is one of five teenagers in the men’s singles draw, alongside 19-year-olds Carlos Alcaraz, Lorenzo Musetti, Brandon Nakashima and Jannik Sinner.

• Garbiñe Muguruza is making her eighth main draw appearance at Wimbledon and ninth overall. Her 2017 Wimbledon title made her the first Spanish woman to lift the Venus Rosewater Dish trophy since Conchita Martinez, her coach, in 1994.

• Frances Tiafoe is one of 34 American players (21 women and 13 men) competing in this year’s Wimbledon singles main draw – the most since 35 in 1998.

“Quotable …”

“Someone has to be and it would be great if it’s going to be me. I know I have all the confidence and I’m probably playing my best season so far on clay, grass and hard.”

Matteo Berrettini on what it would mean to beat Novak Djokovic at this year’s Wimbledon.

Looking ahead to Tuesday

World No. 1 and this year’s top women’s seed Ashleigh Barty of Australia will commence play on Centre Court at 1:30 p.m. against Carla Suárez Navarro of Spain, who is playing in her last Wimbledon Championships before she retires. Also, eight-time Wimbledon champion Roger Federer of Switzerland will face France’s Adrian Mannarino followed by American superstar Serena Williams against Aliaksandra Sasnovich of Belarus.

On No. 1 Court, starting at 1 p.m., it will be No. 4 seed Alexander Zverev of Germany versus qualifier Tallon Griekspoor of the Netherlands, followed by 2018 Wimbledon champion Angelique Kerber of Germany against Serbia’s Nina Stojanovic. Then, it’s No. 2 seed Daniil Medvedev of Russia against Germany’s Jan-Lenard Struff. Rain is in the forecast for London, again.

Tuesday’s Wimbledon order of play