“Come on, Than,” someone shouted from the crowd as Novak Djokovic was two points from victory on Center Court here on Wednesday. “Make him work for it.” Thanasi Kokkinakis, who had been doing his best to get the six-times champion to break sweat for the last two hours, could only smile, shrug and ruefully shake his head.
To stand any chance against the No 1 seed Kokkinakis needed to get his big first serve up and running from the start. Instead, he kicked off with a double fault and went on to lose the game, and by the time he found some consistency on first serve, his opponent had already started to send quite a few back with interest.
The sixth game of the match summed up Kokkinakis’s problem. He saved one break point with an ace and thumped down serves at 129mph and then 130mph immediately afterwards, but brilliant returns got both into play and Djokovic went on to take the points and the game for a 5-1 lead.
A better service game to open the second set was followed by another break in his next, with Djokovic walloping back another booming first serve to set up an easy volley. The Djokovic serve, meanwhile, seemed unassailable, and on the rare occasions when the door seemed slightly ajar, it immediately slammed shut. A rare double fault for 30-all in game six was followed by a very hittable second serve, but Kokkinakis ballooned it long and moments later, it was 4-2 to the champion.
Having closed out the second 6-4, Djokovic wasted no time in getting a break in the first game of the third. The best rally of the match had the ball skimming the net time and again before a lob from Djokovic left his opponent stranded, setting up a break point which was converted after another miraculous return.
By now, Kokkinakis’s 6ft 4in frame was visibly sagging and there were frequent looks of bewilderment as much as frustration as his opponent kept pulling points out of the fire.
Even at two breaks up in the third, Djokovic still scrapped and scurried for every point, and when he chased down a drop shot to hold serve and move to 5-1, it was like watching a goalkeeper who is still desperate to keep a clean sheet when his team are 5-0 up. He faced a break point after a double fault in the final game, but three excellent first serves helped him to close out the match.
“He’s a wall,” Kokkinakis said afterwards, when asked how it felt to face Djokovic in essentially unplayable form. “Playing a wall, that’s what it felt like. It felt like he just did everything right. He had a high first-serve percentage, he returned great. I have volleyed well. I just made things uncomfortable. He does everything right. It was pretty one-way traffic. Yeah, he got chopped today.”
On this form, Kokkinakis will not be the only player who gets chopped over the next week and a half. “Hopefully not if he plays like that,” he said, when asked if he could see anyone stopping the champion, “because if someone beats him when he’s playing like that, it means I’m even further off than I thought.”
Having surprisingly dropped a set against Kwon Soon-woo on Monday, Djokovic could also sense the improvement in his game in just two days.
“I think the quality of tennis was really high from my side,” he said. “It was better than the first-match performance and I knew that I had to start off well today, because I was facing a really tricky opponent, someone that serves well and has a big forehand, so I didn’t want to give him too long
“I played with not too many unforced errors from the back of the court, whenever I needed to put the return in, I did, so all in all, just a really satisfying performance.”
Djokovic will now play his fellow Serb, the No 25 seed Miomir Kecmanovic, in the third round.
Elsewhere in the men’s singles on Wednesday, the No 3 seed, Casper Ruud, the beaten finalist at Roland Garros last month, went out in four sets to Ugo Humbert, while Frances Tiafoe progressed to the third round, beating Maximilian Marterer in straight sets. The No 23 seed, who is in Cameron Norrie’s quarter of the draw, will face Alexander Bublik for a place in the last 16. The fifth seed, Carlos Alcaraz, beat Tallon Griekspoor in straight sets.
George Holan is chief editor at Plainsmen Post and has articles published in many notable publications in the last decade.