In the middle of the first set of Novak Djokovic’s opening round match at Wimbledon, after the defending champion had recovered from being down a break of serve, Centre Court heard something as unusual as birdsong—a near unanimity of crowd support for the Serb. “Come on Novak,” “Come on Djoko,” Come on Djokovic” came the cries from different parts of the stadium.
One of the many paradoxes of Djokovic’s career has been that even as he set record after record, tennis fans have not given him his due, especially at the Grand Slams. As recently as the early rounds of the French Open this year, he was booed, for no reason at all other than beating his opponents too easily. At the Australian Open in January, his hamstring injury was discussed threadbare with many suggestions that it might have been faked. After he beat the Australian Alex de Minaur in the fourth round, conceding just five games, Djokovic testily said, “When others are injured, they are victims. When it is me, I’m faking it.”
Yet the crowd reaction at Wimbledon and the warm reception his thoughtful and gracious speech at the French Open received as well as the applause for his rapidly improving French, skillfully deployed for part of it, suggests that may be changing. With Roger Federer having retired and Rafael Nadal (whose Australian Open victory in 2022 was accompanied by a chorus of sympathetic coverage about his win despite a foot injury) not playing this year as he recovers from surgery, Djokovic has the stage mostly to himself. Winning a 23rd Grand Slam has mostly settled the debate about being the greatest of all time.
The sense of being in the presence of history being made almost every time he steps out on court adds to the Serb’s aura. His opening round marked his 29th consecutive win at the tournament since he had to withdraw in the quarter finals six years ago. It is 10 years since he lost on Centre Court to his friend and rival Andy Murray in 2013. He is this year going for an eighth Wimbledon title, which would tie Roger Federer’s record at the tournament he has long been synonymous with.
On the practice courts and in press conferences last weekend, Djokovic seemed supremely at ease. On the sidelines of his practice session with Murray, who he has been friendly with since they were juniors at the same tennis academy in Spain, Djokovic’s camaraderie with other players was apparent, but this has always been the Djokovic the crowds did not see. When his first-round match against Pedro Cachin was stopped because of rain and the wait had begun to resemble a UN Security Council debate on and off court, with the chief referee and the players coming back on to the court and then proceeding off it because the courts were deemed too slippery and wet, Djokovic made up for it with a bit of improvised comic theatre.
The All England Club normally runs with the purr of a Rolls Royce but it was dysfunctional on Monday afternoon. The roof was closed by the umpire long after Djokovic had requested this because of the rain. By then the courts were wet and yet little attempt was made to dry them quickly beyond a kind of court mop being used. After an hour, a solitary groundsman came out with a leaf blower. Djokovic then grabbed a towel and bent down to dry part of the court himself. The crowd, which had turned impatient after the inexcusable delay went past the hour mark, roared with approval. That moment was a flashback of sorts to the impish Djokovic of his early career when he was known for irreverent imitations of John McEnroe, Maria Sharapova and Nadal.
A more statesmanlike version of the Serb has always been on display in his press conferences. On Saturday when he was asked by The Times of India’s Prajwal Hegde whether the once unfamiliar grass of Wimbledon was in many ways the true testament of his development as a champion, he turned reflective after complimenting the question. He spoke of going out in early rounds for a few years before developing the confidence and the mastery of the surface that has led to his dominance of Federer and Nadal at Wimbledon.
Interestingly, even though he is one of the greatest movers on court and arguably the most elastic, Djokovic diagnosed the problem to be the way he moved on grass. “For several years I did struggle to really take my game on the grass courts to the next level because naturally for me it feels better to slide, and grass is really not a forgiving surface when it comes to sliding, (especially) extreme sliding motions on the court. So I had to learn how to move, how to walk, how to play, how to read the bounces,” he said.
The Serb went on to make the point that because the grasscourt season is so short, this transition has to be made very quickly. “Grass court is the rarest surface we have in the sport, which is contrary to what you had maybe 40, 50, 60 years ago where you played three out of four slams were played on grass,” he said. “Nowadays that's not the case.”
On the practice court against Murray, any observer unfamiliar with their different backgrounds would have assumed Djokovic was the player who had grown up on grass. He moved beautifully, and his low volleys were struck with confidence and a deft touch, especially remarkable because he had skipped playing a tournament on grass between winning the French Open last month and playing at Wimbledon.
In his first-round match against Cachin, there was more of this particular brand of Djokovic grass court play. He used his single-handed slice so well the ball slid on the grass as if it were a snake in this garden of Eden. His shortened backswing on the backhand return and groundstrokes when he sensed his opponent coming in to the net converted the advantages of volleying on grass into foolhardy hara-kiri, never more tragically and memorably than when it was deployed to take back one of the match-points Federer had against him in their superb 2019 final, which Djokovic eventually won.
When I was reporting a piece on Djokovic for the Financial Times in 2007, when he was not even in the top 20, his long-time coach Marian Vajda introduced me to Mark Woodforde, the great Australian doubles specialist. The far-sighted 20- year-old and Vajda had decided they needed one of the best volleyers in the business to come on as a consultant for Wimbledon. The rest is history.
Despite not having played grass tournaments before Wimbledon, a break with the convention of players such as Federer and the current world number one, Carlos Alcaraz, who won the championship at Queens before Wimbledon, Djokovic’s likely dominance at Wimbledon this year is being conceded even by rivals such as the Russian Daniil Medvedev, who beat him in the US Open final in 2021 when the Serb was on the cusp of a Grand Slam. Medvedev described him last Saturday as the greatest of all time, seemingly incapable of losing even when he has bad days. “It’s normal in sport. One (top player) has a bad day, the other has the best in his life, the result is done,” said Medvedev. “But even on bad days, he manages to beat the opponent. That’s why he is for me the greatest in the history of tennis.”
This Wimbledon, the betting is that only the 20-year-old Alcaraz stands in the way of an eighth title for Djokovic and a 24th Grand Slam. Despite the lack of match play on grass, on Monday, he beat Cachin who played with the confidence and variety of a top-tenner rather than someone who was only playing his second match on the surface. But Djokovic was unfazed and completely in control blunting the Argentine’s power and tenacity to win in straight sets.
As he put it, the grass of the All England Club has come to feel like his turf as he tries to win a fifth consecutive title: “When I enter the Centre Court, I guess it just awakens something in me and I'm able to perform at a very high level.”
Rahul Jacob is a former Hong Kong bureau chief for the Financial Times, a former travel, food and drink editor of FT Weekend, and the author of Right Of Passage, a collection of travel essays.