Probably when Novak Djokovic saw his first-round draw, he would gladly have swapped with Rafael Nadal.
Facing the world No. 135 Steve Darcis must have looked rather simpler than an opening encounter against the world No.34 Florian Mayer, who could barely have missed out on being seeded by a narrower margin. But in the event you would never know some 18 days had passed since Djokovic last wielded a racket in anger – when he lost his thrilling semi-final against Nadal at Roland Garros – nor that he arrived at Wimbledon without playing a warm-up tournament on grass.
This was the fourth time Mayer has played Djokovic, including the quarter-finals here last year, and it was the fourth time he could not unburden him of so much as a set. Mayer’s skills were suffocated by the sheer quality of the six-time Slam winner’s play, and Djokovic won comfortably 6-3, 7-5, 6-4 in four minutes under two hours.
The world No.1 seems to have touched down at the All England Club with clarity of purpose cemented in place. He appeared utterly relaxed on the strength of the Stoke Park exhibition event last week where he threw in an impression of Maria Sharapova’s serve, much to the amusement of her boyfriend Grigor Dimitrov.
Now he is at Wimbledon, however, and in this first-round match the entertainment was all about his quality of play. Whatever shock defeat may have befallen others, the fact is that just once in the Open era has the top seed lost in the opening round (step forward Lleyton Hewitt, defeated by Ivo Karlovic in 2003) and Djokovic was in no mood to see that statistic altered. The man known as “Flo” to his friends played solidly and had a hatful of break point opportunities, but was never allowed to convert so much as one.
“Of course I’m very pleased,” said the No.1 seed. “This was my first match back at the biggest tournament in sport, and it was a very satisfying performance. You cannot take anything or anyone for granted.
"Everyone is getting better, more professional. I watched a large part of Rafael Nadal’s match and credit to Steve Darcis - he played the important points very well. There are a lot of quality players at the opening stages of a Slam who have nothing to lose. Mayer’s game is well-suited to grass and it took a lot of effort to win.
"I am satisfied for a first-round match. I could serve better but it’s normal that after the first round I’m still adjusting to the surface and trying to find my rhythm, and generally my game is there.”
It certainly is, as two-time Wimbledon quarter-finalist Mayer will testify. In bright sunshine on Centre Court, Djokovic pressured Mayer with a break at the first opportunity, racing away with some signature excellent returns. Mayer defended with all his might but was still caught out, fluffing a smash horribly at 2-4, and running out of steam in a 23-stroke rally as he lunged to reach a pick-up at the net. Djokovic closed out the set with a scorching forehand.
The 2011 Wimbledon champion is bidding for his seventh Slam title here and is safe in the knowledge that he will still be world No.1 no matter what happens this fortnight.
On he pressed, pushing Mayer to eight deuces and six break points in a 10-minute game before the German could hold for 1-1. He earned his place in the set with that and hung to 5-5 before Djokovic brought up break point with a forehand pass down the line.
An extraordinary rally followed, ending with Mayer slipping on the turf and Djokovic just catching the line for the break. Mayer could not get it back, and when Djokovic broke him at the start of the third, the match was as good as done.
20:24...But boy, it was a barrow-load of fun. I hope you enjoyed it even half as much as we did. Thank you for all your messages throughout, you've been the glue holding us together as the edges frayed amid the madness. Now if you'll excuse me, it's time for us Brits to raise a toast to Andy Murray and Fred Perry. British sporting legends both.
20:19It was the wackiest of Wimbledons with the most unlikely of headline-makers: Sergiy Stakhovsky, Steve Darcis, Michelle Larcher de Brito, Kimiko-Date Krumm, Jerzy Janowicz, Sabine Lisicki, Marion Bartoli...View all