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Novak Djokovic Wins (Eventually) and Andy Murray wins (Remarkably) – Wimbledon is Back in Business

By Alix Ramsay

It is Wimbledon, Jim, but not as we know it. You can almost see Mr Spock’s pointy eyebrow rising half an inch and the concerned look on his usually expressionless face.

Yes, Wimbledon is back. A mere 712 days after Novak Djokovic munched the grass and did his Wonderbra routine in 2019, he was back on court, hoping to do it all again in two weeks’ time. He began his campaign with a 4-6, 6-1, 6-2, 6-2 win over Britian’s latest hope, 19-year-old Jack Draper.

Draper played well – very well – on his Wimbledon debut. He held his nerve, he refused to capitulate when the defending champion started to take control in the second set (and beyond) and he made it very plain that he was afraid of nothing and no one. But, then again, neither is Djokovic. And Djokovic has won five titles on the Centre Court and has every intention of making that six before too long. This is Wimbledon and the world No.1 knows how to play here.

But the Wimbledon that welcomed Djokovic back was not the one he recognised. He was not in his several-bedroomed mansion a stone’s throw from the club; he was not greeted by a packed Centre Court, he did not have to make his way through the dense crowd to get to and from the practice courts – this was a very different place indeed.

To be fair to Wimbledon, they have moved heaven and earth to make the place look like normal – and they have done it in no time flat. All the planning in the world could have been undone by the swish of an official’s pen in Downing Street. But it wasn’t. Phew…. that was close.

Even so, the club only got confirmation that they could have crowds at 50 per cent capacity at the last minute (they had initially been told they would be allowed a 25 per cent limit on fans) so they had to scramble to get everything done. Not that Wimbledon is ever seen to scramble. Like a swan moving sedately down the river, their public face is calm and serene; what the public never sees is the webbed feet paddling like the clappers below the waterline.

Moving around the site is a lot easier this year, mind you. No blocks of Pimms-fuelled autograph hunters bunging up every walkway and stairwell, no gaggles of over excited schoolkids running it to grab cheap tickets on their way home from school. And no queue.

There are one-way systems to keep everyone apart, there are rules and regulations (masks on the move, masks off – if you like – when sitting down) and test results or vaccination status to be shown. Data is to be collected as part of the government’s pilot scheme while the tennis goes on in the background. It Wimbledon in a petri dish… and it all feels very odd.

What hasn’t changed, though, is the weather. After such a long wait to see the venerable old club open its doors again, the merry throng traipsed through the turnstiles to rain (at worst) and drizzle (at best). Not even a global pandemic can stop the English summer.

The dampness limited the fun somewhat. By teatime, a total of nine results had limped in. Given that 64 singles matches were scheduled for the first Monday, this was not good. But slowly the clouds parted and as the post-lunch snifters were replaced by pre-prandial libations, things were starting to happen.

Stefanos Tsitsipas was upended by Frances Tiafoe 6-4, 6-4, 6-3, two hours and two minutes that the Greek may wish to forget. His 35 winners were cancelled out by 22 unforced errors and 32 unforced errors. And while his first serve stats – including 15 aces – were better than Tiafoe’s, his second serve was being shredded by the American. Tsitsipas looked like a bloke who wanted to be somewhere else. Athens, perhaps.

It was only after he had lost that Tsitsipas admitted that he might have done better to get some grass court matches in before Wimbledon began. The thought began to gnaw away at him as the first set sailed by him and by the time he was facing match point, he knew he had made a schoolboy error in his preparations.

“I was thinking maybe I should have played the week before Wimbledon, either Mallorca or Eastbourne, I’m not sure,” he said. “Any of these tournaments would have helped, for sure, get me in a better shape, get my tennis ready for the grass court season.

“For sure lack of matches was crucial today. I kind of started feeling my game a bit better towards the end of the third set, middle of the third set. I felt my strokes better. I felt like I was able to apply more pressure and feel the court better.

“I obviously didn’t want it to be like this, to get to the point where I’m completely out of control. But fair to say he played really well. I wasn’t able to maintain the intensity. I wasn’t able to put something better than him. It ended up going his way.”

Petra Kvitova knew how he felt. The draw had done her no favours by pitting her against Sloane Stephens in the first round. Stephens may not have the best year of her career so far but she has slowly been working her way back into some sort of form. And when she saw Kvitova’s serve wobble, she sensed she was in for a good day – she removed the two-time champion 6-3, 6-4 in 77 minutes.

“I started really well,” Kvitova said. “I just break her serve. I didn’t really hold my serve. Probably about the nerves as well a little bit.”

Stephens knew she was on a roll…. she was just not sure how far that roll would take her. Or how far it will take her next.

“I think when you’re finding your game and trying to work your way back,” she explained, “I think a lot of it is just being positive and knowing that you’ve been at a certain level before and trying to get back there. I think for me the biggest thing was feeling good on the court, feeling like I’m competing like I’m in matches.”

But if we all wanted something to make it feel like the good old days, there was always Andy Murray. An early dinner/late teatime Muzz thriller. These days, every Muzz match is a thriller because he has barely played on the main tour in the past few years.

But taking on Nikoloz Basilashvili, he had the 50 per cent Centre Court crowd on their feet. He was two sets up. The bloke with the tin hip was outwitting the man from Georgia with the simple game plan: leather the ball, no matter what. And Muzz was two sets and 5-0 up. And the it all got complicated.

Muzz then lost seven games in a row and then the match was halted as the roof was dragged over Centre Court. It was for poor light this time, the rain having relented.

They came back. Muzz broke in the first game. It was still not plain sailing but he won after three and a half hours and on his fourth match point. The man with the tin hip was through 6-4, 6-3, 5-7, 6-3.

Where that leaves us for the start of day two, who knows. But if the Muzz has won, things are looking up.