Novak Djokovic's play was not particularly, well, Djokovic-esque, at Wimbledon on Monday. Even he acknowledged as much.
He got broken early and trailed 3-1 as he began his bid for a fourth consecutive championship and seventh overall at the grass-court Grand Slam tournament. He recovered to take that set, then dropped the next. He slipped and fell to the grass. He accumulated more unforced errors than his opponent. Maybe he was a bit under the weather; he grabbed tissues from a black box on the sideline and blew his nose. Maybe he was simply a bit off, not having played a match that mattered in nearly a full month.
This, though, is the top-seeded Djokovic, and there's a reason he extended his winning streak at the All England Club to 22, and his career victory total there to 80 — making him the first player in tennis history with at least that many at each major — by beating Kwon Soon-woo of South Korea 6-3, 3-6, 6-3, 6-4 at Centre Court under the retractable roof.
And there's a reason that friends of the wife of Kwon's coach, Daniel Yoo, held up decorated signs in a player guest box bearing Korean messages that Yoo said meant "Fight!" and "Don't get hurt!"
So Kwon walked on court jittery. But after just two games, the 81st-ranked Kwon said through Yoo's translation, "I felt like, 'Oh, this is doable. ... I can hang with him a little bit.'"
With the exception of a loss for No. 7 seed Hubert Hurkacz, a semifinalist at the All England Club a year ago, Day 1 signaled a fairly routine return to pre-pandemic normal, with capacity crowds, zero masks, the Wimbledon Queue in full effect and, of course, on-and-off-and-on-again showers.
Hurkacz, coming off a grass title over the weekend, lost 7-6 (4), 6-4, 5-7, 2-6, 7-6 (10-8) to Alejandro Davidovich Fokina in a match that featured Wimbledon's new final-set format: women's third sets and men's fifth sets that get to 6-all will go to a first-to-10-and-win-by-two tiebreaker.
That might as well be called the John Isner Rule, owing to the American's 70-68 fifth-set victory over Nicolas Mahut in 2010 and 26-24 fifth-set loss to Kevin Anderson in 2018, both at Wimbledon, both before the tournament adopted deciding-set tiebreakers.
On Monday, Isner was back on Court 18, the site of the Mahut marathon, and smacked 54 aces in a 6-7 (6), 7-6 (3), 4-6, 6-3, 7-5 victory over Enzo Couacaud. Isner's next match figures to be held at a bigger court, because he'll be facing Andy Murray, who has won two of his three major championships at Wimbledon.
Murray's 4-6, 6-3, 6-2, 6-4 win over James Duckworth came at Centre Court and followed another triumph there by a British major title winner, reigning U.S. Open champ Emma Raducanu.
"From the moment I walked out through those gates, I could really just feel the energy and the support and everyone was behind me from the word 'go,'" the 19-year-old Raducanu said after defeating Alison Van Uytvanck 6-4, 6-4. "I just really tried to cherish every single point out there. Played every point like it could have been one of my last on that court."
Djokovic, a 35-year-old from Serbia, had not played since losing to rival Rafael Nadal in the French Open quarterfinals and it seemed to show. Kwon's piercing, flat groundstrokes and soft drop shots were effective for stretches.
"I did not start, or did not play, at my best," said Djokovic, whose 20 Grand Slam trophies are tied with Roger Federer for the second-most in men's tennis history behind Nadal's 22. "But I think when I needed to find the right shots, I did. I think (my) serve got me out of trouble in some decisive moments. I know I can do better."
Keep in mind, too, that this might very well be Djokovic's last major event of this season — and for 11 more months, until the 2023 French Open.
As things stand, he will not be allowed into the United States as a foreigner who hasn't gotten his Covid-19 shots and must miss the U.S. Open, which begins in August. He also could end up sitting out a second consecutive Australian Open because he is unvaccinated — a status he said Saturday he would not consider changing.
After Monday's match, Djokovic said he's not thinking ahead to New York at the moment but added: "I'm hoping some things can change and that I'll be able to go and compete. I would want to."