Djokovic and Wimbledon: The Less Trodden Path
Everyone knows that Federer plays at the grass court tournament in Halle nearly every year, and that Murray plays at the Queen’s Club tournament annually as well. Some people may have a bit of trouble predicting where Nadal plays (this year he played at Stuttgart and Queen’s, previously he has been to Halle). But when he is not plagued by injury, Nadal does play at one of these tournaments.
Where does Novak Djokovic play? When was the last time you saw the Serb on a grass court in the lead up to Wimbledon?Djokovic is noticeably absent from any of the grass court tournaments.
His last appearance in a grass court preparatory tournament was at the Queen’s Club in 2010 when he won the doubles title with Jonathan Elrich. In singles, he lost in the third round to Xavier Malisse. By his standards, he has not done particularly well in these tournaments either. In the preceding years, he has reached the Queen’s final once, in 2008, losing to Rafael Nadal. In 2009, he played in Halle and lost in the final to Tommy Haas.
Many players use the short grass swing prior to Wimbledon to acclimatise to the surface. Federer has built his Wimbledon dominance on the back of his successes at Halle where he has won 7 times. Nadal won his first Wimbledon title in 2008 behind his win at the Queen’s Club. Andy Murray won at Wimbledon after winning at Queen’s in 2013. In fact, a trend is evident if you take a look at the list of former winners at the Queen’s Club. Hewitt in 2001, Roddick in 2003-2005, Becker, McEnroe and Connors in the past – the winner is likely to post a good show at Wimbledon.
But in Djokovic’s case, his absence from these events has actually had an opposite effect on his fortunes. His best show at Wimbledon up till 2010 (which was the last year he played regularly at one of these events) were a couple of semi-finals. However, since 2011, he has reached the semi-final or better every year, winning the title twice (2011, 2014) and finishing as a runner-up once (2013).
So why does Djokovic skip these tournaments?
When he first skipped the Queen’s Club tournament in 2011, while there was a knee issue that warranted caution, it was essentially to recover from the rigours of what had been the best start to a season by any player since John McEnroe in 1984. Djokovic’s 41 match unbeaten run up till his loss to Federer in the French Open semi-final saw him win 4 Masters 1000 titles and the Australian Open.
Essentially, his absence from the preparatory grass tournaments coincides with his rise to the top of the ranks. Since 2011, he has had much success on the clay courts and his European clay seasons have regularly ended with deep runs at the French Open. With only two weeks between the end of the French Open and the start of Wimbledon, the decision to skip these events is therefore not entirely surprising. But this year, there is an extra week between the two majors. So Djokovic’s continued absence has become a bit more noticeable especially when all the other top players are in action.
Of course, Djokovic does not hit the court straight at Wimbledon. He plays one exhibition match each year at the Boodles Challenge in Buckinghamshire which takes place just a few days before Wimbledon. Here’s what he had to say about this in 2011 –
“Even though from the competitive side maybe an extra match would mean a bit more, I think it's enough because I played a lot of match practices with different players in the last couple of days and then one exhibition in Stoke Park. I think it will be enough and I want to think it will be enough because I don't want to regret something that's behind me now.”
Djokovic certainly knows how to win on grass, even with a lack of play time. But Nadal, who has had horrible results on grass over the last few years, is putting in extra yards by playing in two tournaments, in both singles and doubles. He will be coming in to Wimbledon with more than 10 hours of matches plus one title under his belt. This considered, one cannot help but wonder if Djokovic could use more competitive match practice. Just one exhibition match before he looks to defend his Wimbledon title does not seem enough.