When Novak Djokovic was unable to compete at the Australian Open in January after his visa was cancelled, he was not the only player who saw the trajectory of his year immediately shift. Miomir Kecmanovic, his 22-year-old compatriot, had initially been lined up as Djokovic’s first victim but out of great misfortune sprang an opportunity. Instead of the best player in the world, he faced a lucky loser, Salvatore Caruso. The Serb swore that he would do his best to “avenge” Djokovic.
Not even he could have imagined just how faithfully he would live up to those words. He immediately reached a grand slam fourth round for the first time and he has just kept going throughout the year.
He made consecutive quarter-finals in Indian Wells and Miami. He was a protagonist in one of the best matches of the season, against Carlos Alcaraz. After starting the year ranked 77th, he now sits at a new career high of 30.
But under the heightened pressure of Center Court, united with Djokovic this time, none of that form and admirable progress made even the slightest impact. Kecmanovic, who stood as Djokovic’s first seeded opponent of the tournament, was eviscerated by his elder compatriot, who continues to round into form. After only an hour and 53 minutes, Djokovic coolly moved into the fourth round with a 6-0, 6-3, 6-4 win.
“I thought I started off very, very well,” he said. “Very strong with a lot of good intensity, good focus. I know Miomir quite well, we have trained a lot, coming from Serbia.” The victory was dictated by a supreme performance, in which Djokovic immediately imposed himself on Kecmanovic with his depth and intensity and challenged the youngster to keep up. He couldn’t. Kecmanovic was blown away in the first set and he could do little to halt Djokovic’s momentum.
The decisive moment in the third set underlined the challenge he was up against. At 1-1, break point, Djokovic sealed the game with some absurd play. First he slid deep into the right corner in order to retrieve a forehand with an excellent defensive lob, then he flipped the rally on its head, finishing with a slick drop shot and lob combination.
In the end Djokovic closed with 36 winners to 19 unforced errors. Despite a low first-serve percentage, he served well in the crucial moments, and he did not lose his serve until he first served for the match at 5-2. The writing was so clearly on the wall that Djokovic’s slight hiccup, a forehand error on break point, drew a smile from both players. He served out the match without issue at the second attempt.
Both his victory and performance were precisely the type of progress Djokovic is looking for. As in recent years, he arrived at Wimbledon without a match on grass after the French Open. Last year he lost his opening set of the tournament to Jack Draper and this year it was the second set of his opening match against Kwon Soon‑woo. Since then, he has responded with two extremely solid wins. He looks relaxed and composed.
“I think I’ve been playing better and better as the tournament progresses,” he said. “It’s something that you always wish for as a player, that every match you play you raise the level of the matches up a notch at least. And I think that is what is happening at the moment.”
It is difficult to overstate how essential this week is for Djokovic. As things stand, he remains unable to enter the United States in order to compete at the US Open as the country does not allow unvaccinated visitors.
Before this tournament, he made it clear that he will be making no changes to his status and he will sit out Flushing Meadows if nothing changes. After being unable to compete in Australia and then suffering a tough loss to Rafael Nadal in the quarter-finals of the French Openhis season could well hinge on the next week’s nine days of play.
The ultimate goal this year is a seventh Wimbledon title, a figure that not too long ago seemed unrepeatable when it was earned by Pete Sampras. A victory would mark the Serb’s fourth title in a row, his sixth in eight years, true dominance. With any other result, it would be hard not to consider this season one of the lowest points of his career.
At a time when other natural hard-court players have found it difficult to adapt their games in recent years, his success on grass is even more impressive. His adaptation to the surface has been continuous throughout the years, from his service improvements later in his career to the way he has embraced the net.
Djokovic’s 8% of serve-and-volley points so far this year is well above the tournament average of 5%. Despite hard courts being his best surface, these days he seems to have an even greater advantage over the field on grass, in part because there are fewer opponents who can keep up.
The next challenge will be an unknown in Tim van Rijthoven, a Dutch wildcard who continued his eight-match run since his surprise title at the Libema Open in ‘s-Hertogenbosch by reaching his first grand slam fourth round with a 6-4, 6-3, 6-4 win over the No 22 seed, Nikoloz Basilashvili of Georgia.
As Carlos Alcaraz left No 1 Court on Friday following his 6-3, 6-1, 6-2 demolition of the German, Oscar Otte, one fan said to him: “see you in the final”. The answer from the 19-year-old Spaniard? “I’ll try”.
There is a long way to go before Alcaraz makes a Wimbledon final, but the speed at which he is learning is such that even in what is only his third grass-court event, the thought is not totally outlandish. At 19, he is already the No. 5 seed and it doesn’t seem to matter what surface he plays on, hard courts, clay or grass, he is a potential champion.
Now, with the Italian, Jannik Sinner next up in the fourth round and the six-time champion and top seed Djokovic likely to be waiting in the quarters, it’s still a big leap. But the level he reached in crushing was so high that anything is possible. “Well, probably this was the best match on grass that I played,” Alcaraz said. “I enjoy every single second that I play on grass, on this amazing court. I’m really happy to be in the fourth round.”
His tennis is nothing short of breathtaking. Few players have the ability to draw gasps from the crowd; Juan Martín del Potro could do it with his forehand, Rafael Nadal and Roger Federer too, and Alcaraz is another, his lightning speed matched by his incredible racket-head speed, which allows him to hit searing groundstrokes on both sides.
Next up is Sinner, the Italian who did what Andy Murray couldn’t do and tamed the giant serve of John Isner in a 6-4, 7-6 (4), 6-3 victory. “Everybody knows the level of Jannik Sinner,” said Alcaraz, the youngest man to reach the fourth round since 2011. “He’s a great player, very aggressive player. It’s going to be a really fun match, tough match. I am just going to enjoy it.”