Wimbledon 2014: Novak Djokovic survives scare after Boris Becker roll backfires
The Serb beat Gilles Simon in straight sets despite an injury scare after taking a tumble
The increased frequency with which Novak Djokovic comes to the net – 36 times in this third-round match against Gilles Simon – is one example of the influence exerted by new coach Boris Becker. There is work to be done, however, on the exotic dive and roll.
Becker was a master of the art; his improbable, grass-stained lunges at the net defined his relationship with Centre Court. Through the air he would fly, reaching out for glory. The crowd responded with swoons and claps and cheers, their hearts lost to the teenaged flame-thrower from Heidelberg.
Djokovic has a few moves of his own. The power slide and stretch along the baseline is a feature of his game, but not yet the heroic leap into legend. Indeed, at the point of his collapse attempting just such a dance step midway through the third set, there were plenty in the Centre Court audience who thought they had seen the last of the No 1 seed. The scream as he fell to the ground and the inert mass he presented thereafter spoke of an injury beyond repair.
Novak Djokovic in action against Gilles Simon
In the pre-gluten-free years before 2010 Djokovic was not unfamiliar with the early bath, quitting on his stool four times in Grand Slams. A fifth appeared the most likely outcome when he eventually refound his feet clutching his left arm, the movement suggesting dislocation at least.
Simon was on the end of a routine hiding, already two sets and 3-2 down. He would not have wanted to win this way but, equally, a fourth–round French derby with Jo-Wilfried Tsonga would be quite the bonus for persevering.
An injury time-out was called while the physio went to work, first with Djokovic sitting and then lying on a towel beneath the umpire’s chair. It became clear soon enough that Simon would have to earn his stripes given the brutal range of movements the man in pain was asked to make with his shoulder and arm. And so it transpired, tentatively at first and then authoritatively as Djokovic put the match to bed 6-4, 6-2, 6-4.
“It was a scary fall. I talked with Boris,” he said afterwards. “We need to work on my diving volleys and learn how to fall. I’m not very skilled at that. I fell on my shoulder. When I stood up I felt a click and feared a dislocation or joint problem. Luckily it only had a minor impact on the muscles and joint. There is no major damage and I’m confident it will not affect my physical condition. I might be sore over the next two days but I’m confident it will be OK.”
Other than his improved powers of recovery we learned little that we did not already know about Djokovic, or Simon for that matter. This was a routine win punctuated by the odd flourish from the Frenchman and commensurate lapses from the No 1 seed.
Simon has a retro look about him, a sub-David Ginola in 80s casuals who might look good in Fila or Sergio Tacchini, the de rigueur clobber of the McEnroe/Borg era. He plays with an economy of movement associated with austerity of the early Thatcher period, thrifty, everything under control, prepared for any eventuality. And he is adept in a crisis, as demonstrated by his response to losing his serve in the sixth game of the opening set.
Buoyed by the breakthrough, Djokovic assumed the posture of the prizefighter ready to fly at his opponent after enforcing the count. He wanted to knock Simon’s block off with his next service game but could not. It was the Frenchman who landed the telling blows to break straight back.
He needed all of that resolve to hold his next service game, too, as Djokovic sought to inflict his own rapid response. They were to and fro for more than 10 minutes before Djokovic finally went long and Simon levelled at 4-4.
Simon returned to full fitness only last month after a long battle with an ankle injury. That began to show as the points dragged on. Djokovic is not wanting of fitness or focus, and it was this as much as his stroke-making that ground Simon into submission, unable to fend off the Serbian’s thrusts in his final service game of the set.
When Simon lost his serve in the fourth game of the second set a “well, that is that” attitude settled on Centre Court. Perhaps, momentarily, Djokovic allowed himself to think that, too. How else to explain the immediate loss of serve to love by the world No 1? Djokovic retreated to his chair, covered his head in a towel and had a little world with himself. This time that really was that. Djokovic broke immediately to restore the balance of power and duly see out the set without losing another game.
Djokovic has contested 10 of the last 14 Grand Slam finals, winning five of them. Only once in that period has he failed to make the semis, in Australia this year. As his ranking suggests, the man is a machine. But no-one is perfect, and there were some episodic eruptions of Gallic elan good enough to ruffle feathers when Djokovic lost concentration, as he did at the start of the third set to lose his serve for a third time.
Again no serious damage done. The real drama was only a few points away, painful yes, but the ultimate discomfort was Simon’s, gone in straight sets.
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