When James Ward heard he was to play Novak Djokovic on Centre Court in the first round at Wimbledon on Monday, he reacted as any son of a London taxi driver might. “Oh fuck,” he said, when Pierre‑Hugues Herbert showed him the draw on his mobile phone at the All England Club.
“I was in the gym doing some yoga with my physio,” Ward said. “Herbert came in and he was like: ‘Are you trying to copy what [Sergiy Stakhovsky] does?’ I thought, ‘What is he talking about?’ He said: ‘Stakhovsky just told me: Ward plays Djokovic.’”
The Ukrainian’s most famous match was beating Roger Federer in the second round here three years ago, so he knows a thing or two about taking on established institutions.
When the Frenchman confirmed it was James and not his compatriot namesake, Alex, who had been delivered up to the defending champion in the first round, Ward responded appropriately – but not in total resignation, either.
“It’s good in some ways, shit in others,” he said. “It’s going to be a great day, something you have to make the most of and enjoy. It’s a once-in-a-lifetime chance to play him in London, at Wimbledon, the world No1, one of the greatest players of all-time, someone I’ve never played, on Centre Court, where it’s always been a dream for me to play. I’m looking forward to it ... though I am a little bit nervous.
“Obviously, if it starts going pear‑shaped early, it’s tough to enjoy but it’s not just about the match. It’s a big occasion anyway, no matter who you play – but to play Djokovic, it’s going to be unbelievable.
“I’ve played on some big courts. I’ve played on Court One three or four times in front of full crowds against top players. But Centre Court’s different. Everyone gets nervous. It shows – otherwise you don’t care too much. I haven’t been in this position before, so it’s difficult to predict how I’m going to feel on Monday waking up, whether I sleep much on the Sunday night.
“I’m sure we’ll see, probably at about 3.30pm on Monday, if I’ve coped with it. I don’t know. I’ve never practised with him. I’ve said, ‘Hi’ in passing and stuff, but he’s not one of the players that I’m closer to.”
Did he ask Andy Murray – whom the draw is directing towards yet another final against the Serb – for any tips on how to play Djokovic? “Yes, he was rushing off to practice so it was just a quick one. He didn’t say too much: ‘Good luck.’ I could do him a favour, like, ‘Give me something good because it’s in your interests, trying to help you out as much as myself.’ It might make his life a bit easier.
“Everyone has basically said the same thing: the best time to play him is the first round. I saw Sam Groth and he came up and screamed, ‘Wow, what a shit draw!’ I thought at last, some honesty. Everyone else was bullshitting, saying it’s the best time to play him, he hasn’t played for a few weeks, new grass court. Groth [who took only three games off Rafael Nadal at Roland Garros] said: ‘I know how you feel. I’ve got [Kei] Nishikori.’ I said, ‘We’re in the same boat.’ Well, not quite ... but still.”
There is something undeniably engaging and admirable about Ward, who has endured pain on and off the court for several years and whose low-key demeanour rarely changes. However, he has been carrying personal grief with him for several months now and, on Sunday, he chose to share some of his inner emotions about his long-time coach, Darren Tandy, who lost a battle with cancer on Christmas Eve in Perth, Western Australia, just before the Australian Open.
“It is still tough to talk about,” Ward said. “I was talking to my dad about it the other night and he was saying every time you go and play tennis or think about tennis – because Darren was with me all day, every day, there is still that memory there – every time I go to a tournament, I remember something I did with him or a good result we had or something that was shit – something sticks in your mind.
“It is difficult to get rid of that, especially here. I made third round [in 2015], we had a great time, played some great matches, and again memories come back. I was sitting on the lawn upstairs talking to people this week but I was up there with him. Someone sent me a picture the other day of me and him on that lawn.
“I was used to playing a certain way and having certain instructions, having someone to tell me what to do and when to do it. To lose that confidence... I trusted him 100%. It has been a difficult six months – I am not going to lie. There has been a lot of stuff off court. I never wanted to use it as an excuse because Darren would not have accepted that.”
For now Ward has an afternoon, at least, to savour. He could get lucky, just as Stakhovsky did against Federer, but he is not counting on it. He is playing on one good leg, for a start, against the best player in the world. But he will not leave the most celebrated arena in his sport wondering what might have been.
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