LONDON // Novak Djokovic has paid a high price for his part in producing one of the best tennis matches of the year so far - the epic semi-final of the Madrid Masters in which the plucky Serbian eventually succumbed to the King of Clay Rafael Nadal.
The heart-breaking defeat from match point up left Djokovic lethargic and vulnerable to an early departure from the French Open, which came at the hands of his third round opponent Philippe Kohlschreiber. And he was far from his best in making the transition to grass, losing the Halle, Germany, final to Tommy Haas which in the absence of the defending champion Roger Federer was his for the taking.
So the world No 4 arrived at Wimbledon as a candidate to make headlines of the wrong kind and he looked like following that script as he came off worse in a prolonged opening set tie-break of his first round match against an inspired French opponent in Julien Benneteau. Djokovic, so often accused of cockiness on tour when trying to exude confidence about his own ability, put a typically positive spin on what was an uncomfortable Centre Court examination.
"Maybe it's good that I get some long rallies and a long match at the start of the tournament," he declared, before admitting that he would not want the next four to be three and a half hours long too, on the way to what is scheduled to be a semi-final meeting with the five-time champion Roger Federer. He is anticipating today's second round opponent, Germany's Simon Greul, to be as determined as Benneteau was in the 6-7, 7-6, 6-2, 6-4 struggle and reflected: "Whoever gets through to a grand slam is going to be motivated.
"In most of my matches, I am the favourite to win, so my opponents have nothing to lose, so that can be quite tricky and put extra pressure on me. It's something I have to learn how to deal with." Djokovic, 22, is a week younger than Andy Murray, his British friend and fierce rival to be in the vanguard of the cluster of men seeking to challenge the world supremacy of Nadal and Federer.The careers of Djokovic and Murray have followed similar paths. The Serbian looked to be stealing a march on the Scot when winning their race to capture a maiden grand slam - last year's Australian Open - but Murray, who reached his first major final in last year's US Open has now taken a slight edge in their personal duel.
That will change if Djokovic goes all the way on the lawns of the All England Club. "I have always dreamed of winning this tournament and hopefully one day I will get the honour," he said. "This is the most prestigious tournament there is, given the fact that it's the oldest event, all this history and tradition going on." Djokovic, who lost to the Russian former world No 1 Marat Safin in the second round last year, knows he cannot be too wishful in his thinking while Federer is blocking his path to another final and the Swiss was rightfully pleased with his effortless transition to grass after his historic completion of a career Grand Slam on the red clay of Roland Garros two weeks earlier.
Federer received just the right amount of resistance from his Taipei opponent Yen-Hsun Lu to get the feel of the Centre Court in advance of more difficult engagements to come and it will be a surprise if he does not enjoy something similar to his 7-5, 6-3, 6-2 passage against Spain's Guillermo Garcia Lopez this afternoon. The world No 2 is always keen to get over the opening hurdle of a grand slam without alarm. You hopefully want to get off to a good start, get it out of the way, find your way into the tournament, get the atmosphere of a tournament. Then you can start planning for the next few rounds.
Ivo Karlovic, at 6ft 10in the tallest man on tour and possessor of one of the most dangerous serves in the game and Robin Soderling, whom Federer defeated in this year's French Open final, and the 2008 Australian Open runner-up Jo-Wilfried Tsonga are potentially dangerous obstacles to Federer before the business end of the tournament. email@example.com