Novak Djokovic delighted the Center Court crowd by bending down with a towel in hand to wipe some moisture off the grass during a rain delay at Wimbledon on Monday. It seemed fitting for a man who has been treating his opponents in this tournament for the past five years with the same general glee.
Djokovic has not lost a match at Wimbledon since 2017, and with a win over Argentina’s Pedro Cachin on Monday in his first-round match, he extended his record to 29-0 in the last five Wimbledon tournaments. He has won the last four men’s singles titles, and one more title this year will set him up to add even more names to the record books.
If Djokovic can claim a fifth consecutive title at the All England Club, he will take home the first three major trophies of 2023 and increase his chances of becoming the first men’s Grand Slam (all four majors in the same year) since Rod Laver . This in 1969. He became the third man to do so, along with Laver (1962 and 1969) and Don Budge in 1938. Three women have achieved this feat: Maureen Connolly in 1953, Margaret Court in 1970 and Steffi Graf in 1988.
Djokovic will equal Roger Federer for the most Wimbledon men’s singles titles (eight) and Björn Borg for the most consecutive titles (five). Ultimately, he would equal Court’s record of 24 major titles, and the only player to do so in the Open era. (Court had won 13 majors prior to 1968, during a time when professionals were not allowed to play in the majors.)
On Monday, Djokovic, the No. 2 seed but a strong title contender, took to Center Court and had a moment only a happy few have experienced.
“It’s a feeling unlike any other tournament in the world to step onto the center court of Wimbledon on fresh grass as the defending champion,” he said. “To be able to come back to a dream tournament and win the first match is amazing, amazing.”
Wimbledon was the first tennis tournament Djokovic saw on television while growing up in Serbia, and it has remained a fascination for him ever since. And while this is true for thousands of players, few enjoy it as much as Djokovic, who eats blades of grass immediately after winning a title (as opposed to when he wins on the red clay of Roland Garros).
Winning on grass, especially in an era when there are so few tournaments on the surface, and the season so short, is particularly challenging, and Djokovic now rarely plays warm-up tournaments. There are many tactical aspects that make grass different from clay and hardcourt, even now, when the Wimbledon surface is more bouncy and fast than it once was.
For Djokovic, who prefers to slide on hardcourts and clay as he drives balls wide and to the net, the grass at Wimbledon doesn’t allow the same kind of horizontal movement. But Djokovic has become as adept as any player in adjusting from clay to grass in a short time.
“I had to learn how to walk,” he said, “how to walk, how to play, how to read the bounce, etc.”
But the grass was indeed very slippery for a while after a light rain hit the end of the first set of Djokovic’s 6-3, 6-3, 7-6(4) win over Kachin on Monday. It was Djokovic’s toughest hurdle of the day.
The match was stopped, a tarpaulin was spread over the court and the roof was closed. Courts usually dry in less than half an hour. But the humidity mysteriously persisted on Monday, and tournament officials and players returned to the still-slippery courts.
In all, the delay lasted nearly 90 minutes, an astonishing duration for a court with a roof. But Djokovic endeared himself to frustrated spectators by using his own towels and joking with them, as if he could clean everything himself. Given his success on that piece of grass – he hasn’t lost on Center Court since 2013 – few would have expected him to do so.
Some wondered whether his good nature was a sign that Djokovic, with a record men’s singles 23rd major title securely in hand, was now in a more relaxed and happy mood.
“I wouldn’t say specifically that it’s an absolutely unique feeling for me because I’ve won my 23rd Slam,” he said. “I have always tried to take pleasure in those special situations where I feel you cannot control things. I encountered some weird rain delays in Paris, as well as in New York, where I joked.
He admitted that he was physically and emotionally exhausted after winning the French Open in June. So he and his wife, Jelena, Portugal’s Azores Islands hiking and relaxing. He was even forced to spend an extra day there as his original flight home was delayed due to fog.
“It was great because I went through a lot of different emotions during the clay season,” he said, “especially obviously climaxing in Paris, and I needed to get away, be a little isolated.”
The player Djokovic will not have to contend with this year is Nick Kyrgios, his opponent in last year’s Wimbledon final. Kyrgios, who was recovering from surgery on his left knee in January, withdrew from the tournament on the eve of day one after scans revealed a torn ligament in his wrist.
“I think people forget how hard this sport is, how physical it is,” Kyrgios said on Sunday before announcing his wrist injury. “I challenge anyone to go out there and play four hours with Novak and see how you feel after that.”
All of them have been eliminated since Djokovic’s current innings began in 2018.