How is Novak Djokovic holding up in his first Wimbledon title defense? He began it, as you might expect, with a little joke. The week before the tournament began, while he was warming up at nearby Aorangi Park, Nole tweeted a picture of himself and his team munching on some grass. It was a self-deprecating homage to his victory last year, which he celebrated by taking a bite out of the Centre Court turf. “I felt like an animal,” he said later that day.
Once the joking was put aside and this year’s Championships began, Novak showed off another, less obvious side to his personality: a sense of quiet pride at his current position in the game. On Monday you could feel his excitement as he got his first chance to open Wimbledon on Centre Court, an honor that traditionally falls to the defending men’s champion. It’s also an honor that traditionally falls to Djokovic’s big brothers in the Big 3, Roger Federer and Rafael Nadal. The last person other than Fed or Rafa to kick off Wimbledon was Lleyton Hewitt in 2003. (Most of us remember how that turned out: Hewitt lost to Ivo Karlovic, Federer won the tournament, and the rest was history.)
Despite all of Djokovic’s achievements over the past year and a half, and his many wins over Federer and Nadal, there’s a part of him that still regards them as the game’s standard bearers. Why wouldn’t he? Before 2011, Djokovic had watched with the rest of us as the Swiss and the Spaniard dominated the sport and gave us multiple classic matches.
“Their rivalry is one of the most respected rivalries in the history of our sport,” Djokovic said before Wimbledon began. “They’re two great champions, two tennis players that made the history of the sport. Every time you see a Federer-Nadal match, everybody is excited. Even I’m excited to see it because it’s something [that's been going on] for many years.”
While Federer-Nadal—notice that Nole used their names in the traditional order; old hierarchies die hard—has been going on for many years, Djokovic is still a rookie as a defending No. 1, and still getting used to everything that comes with that role. Whatever his ranking, though, he couldn't get away from questions about Fed and Rafa even if he wanted to. In Djokovic’s pre-tournament press conference, one reporter wondered whether he was “worried” that Nadal could take over No. 1 (Nole’s answer: “that doesn’t matter at all”). Another asked him to describe “what it was like” to play Federer, and if his “variety ever astounded you." If he's astounded, Novak hasn't shown it in their last seven matches, six of which he's won. Djokovic answered the way he always does, respectfully, without getting frustrated (publicly, anyway) about how much of the focus remains on those two.
That’s the only attitude he can take, and obviously nothing has fazed him so far at Wimbledon. After a couple of shaky overheads at the start of his first match, against Juan Carlos Ferrero—"I was nervous to start,” Djokovic said afterward—he has settled in and played six of the best, calmest sets of tennis that he’s played in 2012. Djokovic grew stronger against Ferrero, and dismissed the two-time Wimbledon quarterfinalist while surrendering just seven games.
Djokovic was even calmer today in his highly controlled 6-4, 6-4, 6-4 win over a game Ryan Harrison. Djokovic said afterward that it was “very close, closer than the score,” and he was right. Djokovic broke Harrison once in each set, and the two players' winner-to-error ratios were virtually identical—31/15 for Djokovic, 30/14 for Harrison. Statistically, the biggest difference was the percentage of points won on second serves. Djokovic won an amazing 82 percent (higher than the percentage of points he won on his first serve), while Harrison won just 48 percent. You’re only as good as your second serve; and, in Djokovic’s case, you’re only as good as your return of serve.
In its mix of safety and brinksmanship, this was vintage Djokovic all around. He used his usual blend of aggressive yet high-percentage play from the baseline; he had a lot of success getting Harrison stretched on his backhand side and forcing him to drop one hand off the racquet. And in the one moment when his back was against the wall, Djokovic characteristically came up with his best stuff. It wasn’t match points that he saved this time, but break points, six of them, at 2-3 in the second set. Harrison finished an exasperating 0 for 6 on breakers, while Djokovic was an highly efficient 3 for 3.
Still, this was progress for the 20-year-old Harrison, who has always been a proverbial big-match player. He held his own in his first appearance on Centre Court, against the world No. 1, and he must have won a few fans with his athletic scrambling, which included a shoe-top crosscourt forehand pass that skidded off the sideline. If his return let him down, there wasn’t all that much he could have done. Djokovic made 75 percent of his first serves, a ratio that’s going to be too good for just about anyone.
Djokovic moves on to face the winner of Benjamin Becker and Radek Stepanek, the latter of whom could potentially pose some trouble on grass (Novak is 6-1 against him). The most dangerous player in his quarter, Tomas Berdych, has been eliminated. With the nerves of the Djoker Slam out of his system—he said he had to “turn the page” after Roland Garros—will we see more of the calm, clinical 2011-vintage Novak at Wimbledon? The tournament has always been a refuge for frustrated champs like Federer and Pete Sampras who were coming off of a defeat in Paris.
There’s a sense that the momentum is back with Nadal, and that Federer may be inspired by dreams of a seventh title here and return to No. 1. It will be interesting to see whether Novak can turn the tide back against those legends, his big tennis brothers, and reassert his status as the No. 1 of the present and the future. Maybe the civilized environs of All England will help him stay mellow and keep his inner animal at bay, long enough so that he can let him loose with another good grass chomping next Sunday.