James Ward’s first visit to Centre Court in his seventh Wimbledon campaign probably was his last, but he seemed to enjoy it – perhaps a little more than the man who beat him in three sets, Novak Djokovic.
It was not a perfect start to the defence of the No1 seed’s title – 6-0, 7-6 , 6-4 in just over two hours – but it was good enough to shake the cobwebs free.
Just after 1pm on a sunny afternoon, those patrons who had taken their seats burst into polite Wimbledonian applause as the two combatants emerged, and the best player in the world raised an arm and smiled appreciatively.
Ward smiled too, but kept his head down and walked to his chair.
The likelihood of Djokovic losing even a set to the 29-year-old Londoner – playing on one good leg and a lot of goodwill – was remote. Of the eight British players doing their best on day one of the 130th championships, his task was the least possible.
The defending champion struck two aces inside the first minute and held to love; over the next seven minutes Ward served two double-faults, saved one break point but went 0-2 down. If this was going to be the best and worst day of his career, it looked like being a mercifully short one.
But if Djokovic thought the early applause was for him, he was disabused of the notion with Ward’s every success, spaced out as they were. The first set was done in under half an hour. Ward didn’t win a game until 41 minutes had passed, when a big second serve crashed through Djokovic’s outstretched racket and Ward was on the board, 1-3 down and soaking up the applause.
“Come on Wardy!” they screamed, in un-Wimbledonian fashion. When he grabbed three break points there was a danger the gathering would explode in rapture. They settled for more wild cheering when the Serb hit long, and Ward had won two games in a row, after losing a string of nine.
Ward held with a sublime running forehand: three games on the spin.
Whatever next? The world No177 held from 0-40 for 4-4, which was admirable, and he was much buoyed, no doubt, by the interjection of a fan who pointed out, “He’s only human, James!”
Perhaps. SuperNovak looked as angry as any, well, human when a Ward forehand dribbled kindly across the tape for break point – and similarly unsettled when his low volley netted to give the underdog hope a second time. Ward got a third look with a big return off second serve – but Djokovic held. So did Ward.
They went to the tie-break, where Djokovic was 200-120 in his career, Ward … 13-20. One lazy backhand too many, and the champion had his 201st shootout in the bag, to lead 2-0 after one hour and 22 minutes.
Loosened up and hitting freely, Ward had already turned the feared stroll into a sweaty jog in the park, but the right knee that has troubled him throughout his career probably throbbed a little harder as Djokovic stretched him on both wings. The break came in the third game, courtesy of more pressure on Ward’s backhand.
From there to the line, the match took its expected course. For all his fine qualities, Ward has always seemed to lack intensity to go with his power, while Djokovic could rent out his spare resources of fire and energy. Although Ward resisted stubbornly – three of his 10 aces came in the final set – Djokovic needed only to keep the shape of his tennis sound and he was over the line. He finished the job with a wide, slow ace – pure class.
As the loser left the stage, he did a little twirl and gave a farewell wave, job done as well as he could have. And that was classy too.
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