Unexpected test for Novak Djokovic


LONDON -- The differences at this elite level of tennis are sometimes exceedingly marginal.

Novak Djokovic, explaining his loss to Rafael Nadal in the French Open final, embarked on a detailed discussion of the rising temperature's tendency to render the spin of Nadal's forehand slightly heavier and, therefore, harder to handle. A loss of concentration in the third set and another at critical mass in the fourth, he added, were responsible for giving Rafa his ninth title at Roland Garros -- and left Djokovic without a title for the fifth straight Slam.

We were reminded again Wednesday just how narrow those margins are.

Playing against the oldest player in the ATP World Tour's top 50, the No. 1 seed here at the All England Club struggled mightily in the second round. After a sometimes excruciating 3-hour, 16-minute match, Djokovic put down tricky Radek Stepanek with a sticky 6-4, 6-3, 6-7 (5), 7-6 (5) result. He's now won 11 of 12 matches against the 35-year-old Stepanek, but they are rarely easy.

The two are terrific friends and actually practiced a few days before Wimbledon.

"He moves very well, performs well on the big stage," Djokovic observed after the match. "He's a great entertainer. On the one side, it was fun to be part of this great, entertaining match, but I should not have complicated my life like this.

"I had some break-point chances in the third set and was up in the tiebreaker and should have closed it out."

Stepanek somehow managed to beat Andy Murray two weeks ago at Queen's, ending the Scot's 19-match winning streak on grass. The very first game suggested that the Czech Republic player wasn't destined to repeat an upset of that magnitude. Djokovic's first stroke was a 107 mph ace, but Stepanek challenged the call. He was wrong by a fraction of a millimeter. On the third point, when his serve was called out, Djokovic challenged. It was good by another eyelash, and Stepanek would lose the game at love.

As it turned out, that's how close it was the entire way.

In 2011, when Djokovic won three of the four majors, he was all but invincible. Since then, he's come away with two more Australian Open titles, but the overall results have disappointed him. After losing last year's French Open semifinal to Nadal, the Wimbledon final to Andy Murray and the US Open final again to Nadal, Djokovic made an interesting decision.

Aware of the dramatic impact Ivan Lendl had on Murray's confidence, Djokovic added his own former Grand Slam champion to the coaching team, Boris Becker. Murray has now turned to Amelie Mauresmo, while Federer employs Stefan Edberg. To hear the various individuals tell it, the former stars are more useful discussing the mental side of things, rather than strategy.

Becker, who has maintained a cartoonish presence here as a BBC analyst, has been working with Marian Vajda, who has been with Djokovic for eight years.

"It's the first time we're working together in Wimbledon, where he has won three times and played a couple other finals," said Djokovic. "This is his surface. This is his home. This is where he feels most comfortable. He's very inspired to convey his messages, his advices to me.

"Here, where he had the most success in his career, we can together have a great two weeks."

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