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."

Although his 25-match winning streak at the Australian Open came to an end -- when eventual champion Stan Wawrinka surprised him in the quarterfinals -- Djokovic has had a nice year. After beating Nadal decisively in the finals at Miami and Rome, he declared that winning the French was his chief goal for the season. And then, when it mattered most, he couldn't beat the King of Clay on his favorite court.

Now, Djokovic's focused on Plan B, which would be tapping Becker's splendor on the grass at Wimbledon. Wearing a striped polo shirt, he watched from the players' box, a commanding presence with his trademark bright hair and piercing blue eyes.

With the two-year travails of Nadal and Roger Federer here and Murray's lack of recent form, Djokovic is the No. 1 seed -- and the favorite of the bookmakers to win his second title.

Djokovic, unlike the most of the other leading players, did not play a grass warm-up tournament. He took four or five days off at home in Monte Carlo and tried to get his mind of tennis.

"It was a long clay-court season," Djokovic explained. "It took a lot out of me. You need to balance and have some recovery time, some downtime, which can recharge your batteries, mentally most of all."

As the match with Stepanek wound on, Djokovic grew increasingly frustrated with Stepanek -- and his own inability to close him out in the third set -- and the fourth. Becker had pulled on a cream-colored sweater vest. At a critical juncture (serving at 5-all in the fourth), Djokovic made a gracious gesture of sportsmanship, giving Stepanek a point he didn't have to. Ultimately, when he finally won that must-have game, Djokovic reached down and threw up an emphatic, inspired uppercut.

The final point was perfectly poignant: Djokovic hit a crosscourt forehand that was called out. He challenged -- and clasped his hands in prayer as the replay unfolded -- and learned that he had, in fact, won the match.

"I do feel different having Boris on my side, having a player who made a mark in this sport -- especially in this tournament," Djokovic said before the tournament. "That's something I'm looking forward to experienc[ing] these two weeks."

The way things went down Wednesday, he's lucky the experience will extend beyond two rounds.