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  • Writer's pictureThe San Juan Daily Star

At Wimbledon, Novak Djokovic eyes cleaning up on the grass

Novak Djokovic wiped the court with a towel when play in his first-round match against Pedro Cachín was suspended because of rain. He ended up winning in straight sets.

By David Waldstein

Novak Djokovic, bent over with a towel in hand, delighted the Centre Court crowd during a rain delay at Wimbledon earlier this week when he mopped some moisture from the grass. It seemed appropriate for someone who has been doing the same general thing to his opponents over the past five years at this tournament.

Djokovic has not lost a match at Wimbledon since 2017, and with a victory over Pedro Cachín of Argentina in their first-round meeting Monday, he extended his record over the past five Wimbledon tournaments to 29-0. He has won the last four men’s singles titles, and one more this year would set himself up to eclipse even more names in the record book.

If Djokovic can claim a fifth consecutive title at London’s All England Club, he will have taken home the first three major trophies of 2023 and increased his chances of winning the first men’s Grand Slam (all four majors in the same year) since Rod Laver did it in 1969. He would also become just the third man to do it, joining Laver (1962 and 1969) and Don Budge in 1938. Three women have accomplished the feat: Maureen Connolly in 1953, Margaret Court in 1970 and Steffi Graf in 1988.

Djokovic would also tie Roger Federer for most Wimbledon men’s singles titles with eight and tie Bjorn Borg for the most consecutively with five. Finally, he would match Court’s record of 24 major titles, and would be the only player to do it entirely in the Open era. (Court won 13 majors before 1968, during a time when professionals were not allowed to play in the majors.)

On Monday, Djokovic, the No. 2 seed but the overwhelming title favorite, walked onto Centre Court absorbing a moment that only a happy few have experienced.

“It’s a feeling like no other tournament in the world, of walking out on the Centre Court of Wimbledon as a defending champion, on the fresh grass,” he said. “It’s amazing, amazing to be back to a dream tournament, and to be able to get the first match out of the way.”

Wimbledon was the first tennis tournament Djokovic watched on television when he was growing up in Serbia, and it has held an allure for him since. And while that is true for thousands of players, few have enjoyed it as much as Djokovic, who ingests blades of grass immediately upon winning his titles (unlike when he wins on the red clay of Roland Garros).

Winning on grass, especially in an era when there are so few tournaments on the surface, and the season is so short, is particularly challenging, and Djokovic rarely plays the warm-up tournaments anymore. There are many tactical aspects that make grass distinct from clay and hard courts, even now, when the Wimbledon surface is much bouncier and faster than it once was.

For Djokovic, who likes to slide across hard courts and clay as he reaches for balls out wide and at the net, the grass at Wimbledon does not allow for the same kind of horizontal movement. But Djokovic has become as adept as anyone at adjusting from clay to grass in short order.

“I had to learn how to move,” he said, “how to walk, how to play, how to read the bounces, etc.”

But the grass was actually too slippery for a while on Monday after a light rain fell toward the end of the first set of Djokovic’s victory, 6-3, 6-3, 7-6 (4) over Cachín. It was Djokovic’s toughest obstacle of the day.

The match was halted, the tarp spread over the court and the roof rolled closed. Normally the courts dry off in less than half an hour. But the moisture mysteriously persisted Monday, and tournament officials and the players returned to a still slippery court.

In all, the delay lasted almost 90 minutes, a surprising duration for a court with a roof. But Djokovic, who plays Jordan Thompson of Australia today in a second-round match, endeared himself to the disappointed spectators by employing his towel and joking with them, as if he could clean it all up himself. Considering his success on that patch of grass — he hasn’t lost on Centre Court since 2013 — some might have expected him to do it.

Some wondered whether his good temper was an indication that Djokovic, with a men’s singles record 23rd major title safely in hand, was now in a more relaxed and jovial mood.

“I wouldn’t particularly say it’s quite a unique feeling for me just because I’ve won my 23rd Slam,” he said. “I’ve always tried to have fun in particular circumstances where I guess you can’t control things. I’ve had some funny rain delays in Paris, as well, New York, where I joked around.”

He acknowledged being physically and emotionally exhausted after winning the French Open in June. So he and his wife, Jelena, went to Portugal’s Azores Islands to hike and relax. They were even forced to spend an extra day there because fog grounded their original flight home.

“It was great because I’ve been through a lot of different emotions during the clay season,” he said, “particularly obviously reaching the climax in Paris, and I needed to get away, get isolated a little bit.”

One player Djokovic will not have to contend with this year is Nick Kyrgios, his opponent in last year’s Wimbledon final. Kyrgios, who has been recovering from surgery on his left knee in January, withdrew from the tournament on the eve of the first day after a scan revealed a torn ligament in his wrist.

“I think people just forget how strenuous this sport is, how physical it is,” Kyrgios said Sunday, before announcing his wrist injury. “I dare someone to go out there and play four hours with Novak and see how you feel afterward.”

Since Djokovic’s current run began in 2018, they’ve all been wiped away.

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