Serbia's Novak Djokovic in action during his first round match against Britain's Jack Draper London, Britain, on June 28 2021. Picture: POOL via REUTERSDAVID GRAY
Serbia's Novak Djokovic in action during his first round match against Britain's Jack Draper London, Britain, on June 28 2021. Picture: POOL via REUTERSDAVID GRAY

London — Defending champion Novak Djokovic overcame an early fright to fend off British teenager Jack Draper 4-6 6-1 6-2 6-2 and launch his quest for a sixth title as Wimbledon returned after a two-year absence on Monday.

The first match on Centre Court since Djokovic’s nailbiting victory over Roger Federer in the 2019 final —716 days ago — was classic David vs Goliath material.

And though there was to be no fairytale Grand Slam debut for 19-year-old Draper, the match proved the perfect way to bring Centre Court back to life after the enforced silence due to the coronavirus pandemic.

Only 7,500 fans were permitted on Centre Court in line with the 50% cap on attendance, but they let out a mighty roar as Draper won his first point.

Djokovic has never lost a Grand Slam match to a player ranked as low as world No 253 Draper, but looked a little stunned as he struggled to find his footing on the greasy turf and contain the fearless hitting of the Briton.

Grand Slam main draw debutant Draper broke serve in the third game and made a mockery of his inexperience as he saved all the break points he faced on his way to taking the opening set off the Serb contesting his 65th Major.

Twice Djokovic found himself on his backside in the first set and with the roof closed because of the rain that delayed play on the outside courts, the stage looked perfect for a Wimbledon shock of monumental proportions.

But Djokovic is not a 19-time Grand Slam champion for nothing and the Serb quickly snuffed out the danger, levelling the match by dominating a 26-minute second set.

Any hopes Draper had of handing Djokovic his first opening-round defeat at a Grand Slam since 2006, began to evaporate when he completely missed an overhead to drop serve early in the second set, Djokovic roaring in relief.

From that point on it was straightforward enough for Djokovic who looked immaculate when he quickly got back into the old routine in his first competitive singles match on grass since saving match points to defeat Federer two years ago.

“It feels great seeing everyone and being back on the most sacred tennis court in the world,” Djokovic, who is bidding to land a record-equalling 20th Grand Slam title, having won the Australian and French Opens in 2021, said on court.

“It was very sad last year that Wimbledon was cancelled but really glad the sport is back.”

He had kind words for Draper who had vowed to cause his illustrious opponent problems and remained true to his word in one scintillating set.

“He definitely deserves a round of applause,” Djokovic said. “He was walking on to Centre Court for the first time and carried himself very well and backed himself.”

Meanwhile, second seed Aryna Sabalenka struck a barrage of winners to blitz past Romanian qualifier Monica Niculescu 6-1 6-4 on Monday and reach the second round of Wimbledon.

The withdrawal of Naomi Osaka and Simona Halep meant world No 4 Sabalenka is at her highest seeding at a Major.

With persistent rain preventing play on the outside courts, the Belarusian kicked off the women’s championships under the closed roof on Court One and set the green grass on fire with her aggressive tennis.

“In the beginning I was really nervous to open the Wimbledon and also be first playing on first court,” Sabalenka told reporters. “I was nervous a little bit because I haven’t played in the stadiums at Wimbledon.

“The atmosphere there was unbelievable. I was nervous about the surface because I never played on the new grass... I didn’t really know what to expect.”

Those nerves, however, did not have an effect  on her game as the 23-year-old, 10 years younger than 191st-ranked Niculescu, produced winners at will off both forehand and backhand to leave her opponent powerless and rooted to the baseline during the match.

Niculescu, who reached a career-high 28th ranking in 2012, is one of the most unorthodox players on the circuit and employed her sliced forehands and chopped returns in abundance but it was not enough to derail the Belarusian.

Sabalenka was particularly severe on Niculescu’s weak serve as she pummelled 15 return winners with the Romanian managing to hold her serve just three times. Frustrated, she tried an underarm serve in the third game of the second set but could only hit it into the net, bringing a smile to Sabalenka’s face.

Sabalenka jumped to a 3-0 lead in the second set with a double break but started facing some problems on her own serve and was broken twice as her unforced errors climbed in the face of some resolute defence from her opponent. But she regained her composure and sealed victory in 75 minutes with a crushing forehand down the line.

It was her 47th winner of the match against 30 unforced errors. Niculescu managed only eight, most of them at the net. Sabalenka will take on either US qualifier Danielle Lao or British wildcard Katie Boulter in the second round. 

Reuters

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