Novak Djokovic answers Wimbledon injury question but bigger issues remain

Novak Djokovic cruised past an overmatched Vit Kiprova  (Mike Egerton/PA Wire)
Novak Djokovic cruised past an overmatched Vit Kiprova (Mike Egerton/PA Wire)

All eyes are usually on Novak Djokovic when he steps on to Centre Court at Wimbledon but this time, they were trained on one specific body part – his right knee.

On June 5, less than four weeks ago, the 24-time grand slam champion went under the knife after suffering a torn meniscus in his right knee during a fourth-round win over Francisco Cerundolo at the French Open. The idea that he would be fit enough to play at the All England Club and try to reclaim the trophy that was so ruthlessly ripped from his grasp 12 months ago by Carlos Alcaraz seemed not only doubtful but downright fanciful.

His attention would surely turn instead to the Olympic Games and finally achieving the one major accomplishment that has eluded him throughout his storied career – winning Olympic gold for his country. By focussing on Paris 2024, he would avoid not only a potentially damaging race to be fit but also a risky surface-switch merry-go-round from Roland Garros clay to Wimbledon grass back to Roland Garros clay that would test any 37-year-old body, let alone one with a newly surgically-repaired right knee.

But Djokovic did exactly what he's done throughout his record-breaking career – defy belief through a mixture of stubbornness and sheer hard work. He gruellingly rehabbed the knee to the point that, less than a month later, he declared he was ready to play at SW19 and try to complete his quest of matching Roger Federer's record eight men's singles titles.

"If it was for any other tournament, I wouldn't have risked it or rushed it as much," he admitted. "I just love Wimbledon."

So there was added interest when he strode on to Centre for a first-round encounter against Czech Republic's Vit Kopriva and this only heightened when Djokovic emerged with a grey compression sleeve around the right knee.

Novak Djokovic was sporting a grey compression sleeve on his right knee (AFP via Getty Images)
Novak Djokovic was sporting a grey compression sleeve on his right knee (AFP via Getty Images)

The first game didn't help answer any fitness questions although the issue of whether he would be rusty on serve was immediately resolved as he banged down two aces and two unreturned serves, meaning he barely had to move an inch.

However, over the course of a straightforward 6-1 6-2 6-2 win in under two hours, concerns were eased as Djokovic went through an array of slides, stretches and sprints without so much as a grimace or a groan. But for the grey strapping, you'd have forgotten that there was ever a meniscus issue at all.

"I was pleased with how I felt on the court," smiled Djokovic in his post-match interview. "I didn't know how everything would unfold. Practice sessions are quite different to matches, so I’m extremely glad with how I felt and played today. I tried to really focus on my game and not think about the knee."

His shot-making also showed no sign of being affected as he pulled some remarkable whipped forehand winners down the line and deft volleys at the net to close out points. Having not played for a month, this was the ideal contest to get back in the saddle with.

Djokovic showed no ill-effects from his stretches and slides (AP)
Djokovic showed no ill-effects from his stretches and slides (AP)

Truthfully, Kopriva was completely overmatched. The world No 123 was appearing in the main draw at a grand slam for just the second time at the age of 27 and whereas Mark Lajal spectacularly raised his game for his Centre Court debut against one of last year's Wimbledon finalists yesterday, the Czech produced he sort of standard you'd expect given his career record.

And that was never going to be enough to challenge perhaps the greatest male tennis player of all time, regardless of his injury status.

Kopriva dug deep on his own serve and produced intermittent moments of magic that a supportive crowd roared for but he was unable to force a single break point on the Djokovic serve and once he was eventually broken in each set, the match promptly got away from him.

Bigger tests await Djokovic (EPA)
Bigger tests await Djokovic (EPA)

Given the focus on Djokovic's knee and the fact we've become accustomed to him dominating the sport, it's easy to forget that the Serb was actually enduring a dismal season before the injury. Having spent the past decade being almost unbeatable at the Australian Open, Jannik Sinner spectacularly dethroned the King of Melbourne back in January and then knocked him off his No 1 perch a few months later.

Djokovic hasn't made the final of any tournament this season, let alone won one, and there should rightly be questions over his form. This match could never have answered those and there are bigger tests to come. Will he be able to hang with potential fourth-round opponent Holger Rune or possible quarter-final foe Alex de Minaur? Let alone Sinner or Alcaraz.

Only time will tell. For now, Djokovic has dispelled any concerns over the knee, while everything else will just have to wait for the rest of the fortnight.