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Tennis

Defending champ Djokovic works through kinks in first-round win

WIMBLEDON, England -- At precisely 1 p.m. London time on Monday, Novak Djokovic emerged from the Wimbledon locker room and stepped onto the most beautiful tennis court on earth. He was moved by the sight of it, how it felt, and the memories of his championship victory over Rafael Nadal some 12 months before.

"The grass was untouched," he would say after a 6-3, 6-3, 6-1 dismissal of former world No. 1 Juan Carlos Ferrero. "Nobody played on it. So beautiful. Once I dreamed of playing here. To win it was my greatest achievement."

One of the charms of Wimbledon is that the Centre Court is indeed untouched between tournaments. Other courts come into play, for various events, but not the jewel. Groundskeepers spend the year grooming it, fussing over it, making it slightly more perfect than the previous day. It is the defending champion's great honor to christen the hallowed ground.

It was a little bit shocking, then, to see Djokovic almost comically off-form at the beginning. Over the course of a single game (the third), he shanked an overhead, drilled a sitter forehand about five feet long, double-faulted, then took a pratfall as Ferrero's game-winning groundstroke sailed past him.

It wasn't long, though, before the elements of Djokovic's genius came forth: the blistering returns of serve, the precise footwork, the astounding movement. Ferrero couldn't hit a better shot than the cross-court forehand he unleashed in the eighth game of that first set, only to watch Djokovic not only sprint to the scene, but manage a deep forehand that allowed him to eventually win the point.

We don't see as much of Djokovic's whimsical side as he revealed in years past, but courtside observers couldn't help but notice the miniature golf club in his bag. His sponsor, Head, has designed a bag that stands up in a vertical position, "just like a golf bag," he said. "So this was a little joke we had, with a junior club. Just a little funny thing I proposed to fit into that creative idea of theirs. I was talking to some of the fans, joking around. They were like, 'This isn't a golf course.'"

Djokovic enjoyed the fact that he has known his starting time, the traditional 1 p.m., for months. "That's something you only get at Wimbledon," he said. "This is a place where you feel that tradition and history, especially on the Centre Court. So many legends have won their trophies and become stars here. In my opinion, and that of many players, it's the most respected tournament in the world. It's quieter. It feels like a theater, in a way. But the crowd has great knowledge of the sport, and they really get into it when they have reason."

For those who recall Ferrero's victory in the 2003 French Open, and his ascent to the No. 1 ranking later that year, it's gratifying to see him so vibrant and competitive at 32. Media sage Tom Tebbutt, sitting alongside me at Centre Court, compared his career to that of Jim Courier, who peaked in his early 20s (four major titles) and then had to endure those "Why aren't you No. 1?" questions for six years before retiring. Courier, though, could be cranky and confrontational under such interrogation. Ferrero has very modestly pursued a life he cherishes, and even now, in relative obscurity, he holds a respectable No. 38 ranking.

Much of the discussion in advance of this year's Wimbledon centered around the element of serve-and-volley tennis: its general demise, the fact that it once ruled at Wimbledon, and the notion that modern-day equipment has rendered the strategy nearly useless. Not everyone buys into that theory, especially Boris Becker, who was enthused to watch Djokovic make an occasional net-rush against Ferrero.

"Look at that -- serve-and-volley point!" Becker marveled during the BBC telecast. "Guys, I'm telling you: Come to the net. It's grass. It's easier up front."

"Would you play here the way you did in your prime?" wondered broadcast partner Simon Reed, recalling Becker's endearingly frenetic style in the mid-80s. "I don't know if I'd come in behind my second serve," he admitted. "But first serve, absolutely. Come forward. Of course. I don't agree that the new grass (rye turf) plays so differently than before. A kick serve is still a kick; a slice is still a slice."

However Djokovic approaches this event, he's dealing with a natural letdown from his epic performances of 2011, when he won the last three majors and departed the U.S. Open with a 62-2 record. You'd imagine he feels due for a win after coming up short in his last four tournaments (Monte Carlo, Madrid, Rome and the French Open), and there were times when he revealed edginess and discouragement in his body language.

Djokovic's vulnerability was especially evident during the French final against Rafael Nadal, who looked ready to run him off the court until a mild drizzle turned into a steady rain. Only then, with Nadal upset over the playing conditions, did Djokovic forge a mental edge, winning eight straight games at one point. But when a new day dawned, in the wake of a postponement, Nadal quickly re-established his superiority.

Djokovic can't be worried about Nadal right now, and he wouldn't see Roger Federer until the semifinals. This is a time for him to work on his game, step by step, and appreciate the privileges only a defending champion can enjoy.

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