It was 2013, the last time Novak Djokovic lost on Centre Court, 35 matches ago now. Andy Murray was the victor that day and Friday’s opponent, Miomir Kecmanovic, was never going to emulate him.
For a start he’s 22 and ranked 25. More importantly, he’s Serbian. So playing Djokovic is not like facing just any good player. What was it Jose Mourinho said about his standing at Porto? ‘God, and after God, me.’
That’s Djokovic in Serbia. Maybe a bit closer. Maybe it’s a tie; or Djokovic bests God by a nose. Either way, for Kecmanovic to have been standing across the Centre Court net from the greatest living Serbian must have been intimidating beyond words.
Novak Djokovic is through to the fourth round of Wimbledon after beating Miomir Kecmanović
The 35-year-old superstar won 6-0 6-3 6-4 as he pursues a seventh British Grand Slam title
But Djokovic isn’t a bad guy. He didn’t leave his young countryman humiliated or in crisis.. He wasn’t casual or disrespectful. He played his game. He won the first set 6-0 to show that he meant business and only towards the end did he get a little soft.
Tennis has a busy Integrity Unit so we have to be careful with our words here but if this was a boxing match one might argue the superior fighter was being kind to his opponent, propping him up a little. He knew he could finish this any time he wanted.
He did so at 6-4. Close enough to let the young man off court with pride and confidence intact; not so close to pose a true danger to Grand Slam number 21. Having taken three points off Djokovic’s last six service games, Kecmanovic suddenly broke him for the first time, then held serve.
From serving for the match 5-2 up, Djokovic now led 5-4. That was enough: he won the final four points, bent down, touched the turf, then placed a hand on his heart. As well he might. This is a special place for him.
There are only three players who have won four consecutive men’s singles titles at Wimbledon in the open era: Bjorn Borg, Pete Sampras and Roger Federer. Djokovic is aiming to become the fourth and so far, so good.
Fellow Serbian Kecmanovic put up a valiant effort against the current World No 3 but lost out
He looks in great nick, is moving well and playing some stunning shots. Even without the intimidation factor there were moments when Kecmanovic looked utterly lost before the arsenal he was facing.
To win the second set, Djokovic played a lob so perfect and bamboozling that Kecmanovic was heading towards his chair before it had even landed. There were very many shots like that. Passes, deliciously placed crosscourt forehands, drops, volleys, a barrage of winners that would have tested the best here – those that Djokovic must overcome in week two.
So, for Kecmanovic, it wasn’t just like trying to beat The Queen. It would be like trying to beat The Queen if she was really, really exceptional at tennis, and in the form of her life.
Djokovic was 40-0 up in his first service game when the sound of crashing bottles interrupted his concentration with the ball mid-air. He offered up a double fault, but won the next point. His second service game, however, gave Kecmanovic three break points – including one at the end of a 17 shot rally – at which point the champion got serious.
There was always the possibility that by treating his opponent with kid gloves, Djokovic could fall into a trap, or at least a slumber. Going 0-40 down acted as a glass of cold water to the face. Djokovic woke up, saved the three break points, then took the next five for good measure. He never looked back in that first set, winning it to love.
Djokovic has seen his young opponent coming through and knows he cannot be taken for granted. He can hit, no doubt of that. In the second set, with Djokovic leading 2-1 and the game tied 30-30 on Kecmanovic’s serve – so pretty crucial – the pair shared a punishing 31 shot rally that ended in Kecmanovic’s favour.
Djokovic will next take on Dutch wild card Tim van Rijthoven, who he has never played before
On occasions, Djokovic would acknowledge good play from his opponent, tapping his palm against his racket in applause. Not that time. A lot of exertion goes into a 31 shot rally. Djokovic was too lost in the moment for pleasantries.
‘I know Miomir well,’ said Djokovic. ‘We train a lot both coming from Serbia but grass is not his surface. I wish him all the best and hopefully he will get to play on Centre Court at the big tournaments more and more.
‘I thought I started well with a lot of intensity and focus and kept that up for most of the game. I think I have been playing better and better as the tournament progresses which is something you always wish for. You want to raise the level of tennis up a notch each match and that’s what’s happening.’
This could make life difficult for his next opponent, Tim van Rijthoven of Holland. Djokovic may not know him – they have never played – but he knows his coach Igor Sijsling, a Serbian contemporary, who he grew up playing against.
At the start of June, van Rijthoven had never won a match on the ATP Tour and was outside the world’s top 200. Since then, he’s won eight matches straight, including five against top 30 opponents, and will probably be Djokovic’s 36th successive Centre Court victim on Sunday.
One might think that would make the current champion unpopular, given his sometimes difficult relationship with the public. Not in the least. Even here, while Kecmanovic enjoyed the backing underdogs always receive – particularly those that lose the first seven games of the match before pluckily saving a break point and holding serve – Djokovic was never cast as the villain of the piece.
He got at least as much applause as the ball girl who successfully chased a small bird off court in the third set.