Novak Djokovic received a serious challenge from Radek Stepanek before finally closing out their second-round match in a fourth-set tiebreak, 6-4, 6-3, 6-7(5-7), 7-6(7-5).
Djokovic is the top seed for the tournament, but there were questions coming into the event about his transition to the grass. He didn't play any warm-up matches on the surface, opting for some extra rest instead, and opened with a tricky first-round match against Andrey Golubev.
Well, it was supposed to be tricky. The Serbian superstar was on cruise control as he dropped just five games to Golubev, who entered the week just outside the top 50. That's a tough first-round draw in a 128-player field, but the favorite came through it with ease.
Djokovic expressed his satisfaction following the win, as noted by the ATP World Tour's official site:
It was a great start. Obviously first official match on a grass court season this year. Coming into Wimbledon with no official matches, it always gives you an extra reason to get that commitment and focus from the start and try to play as best as you can, so that's what I did. Very, very pleased with my performance overall today.
Stepanek was always going to present a more difficult test. The crafty veteran doesn't have a lot of weapons, but he's still strong defensively and makes opponents work to beat him. He made it to the quarterfinals at the All England Club in 2006 and reached a peak ranking of No. 8 in the world.
They traded holds for the first eight games of the opening set. Then there was a key stretch that ended up swinging momentum to Djokovic's favor.
He was serving at 4-4 and Stepanek had two looks to grab the first break of the match. He couldn't convert either opportunity and the six-time major champion was able to secure a fifth straight hold.
As is often the case, after one player missed a chance to break the opponent takes advantage in the very next game. That's especially true when an underdog like Stepanek is going up against a player the caliber of Djokovic, who won the Wimbledon title in 2011.
Sure enough, Djokovic got the timely break to close out the first set at 6-4. The difference between them was minimal, but the top seed played the big points better.
Chris Wilkinson of ESPN UK noted Stepanek was able to create some difficulty for the "Djoker" by getting to net for some easy points, but even that wasn't enough:
Djokovic was able to grab control of the second set a little quicker thanks to an early break. He really elevated his level of play, allowing him to strike winners off both wings while also hitting better passing shots to limit Stepanek's effectiveness at net.
The seasoned Czech player didn't play poorly. Yet, when Djokovic hits 15 winners and connects on eight aces, it's very difficult to make any inroads on his serve.
Matt Zemek of Bloguin pointed out that the double-break opportunity late in the first set really seemed to serve as a wake-up call for the No. 2 ranked player in the world:
Stepanek wasn't even able to generate a break chance for a look to get back on serve. Djokovic was simply too good as he grabbed a two-set lead.
Craig O'Shannessy of the ATP World Tour suggested even more net play from Stepanek, who was getting pushed well behind the baseline on the points where he didn't approach:
Give credit to Stepanek for continuing to put up a fight. Down two sets to Djokovic is when many players would start becoming overly aggressive out of frustration. His experience allowed him to stay competitive in the third set.
He forced a tiebreak and Djokovic played some very loose points after building any early lead. Stepanek took advantage by winning some extended rallies to force a fourth set. It was an impressive display considering the lack of success he had in the second set.
Neil Harman of The Times noted the crowd started getting behind the underdog:
It was more of the same in the fourth set. They battled back and forth without any breaks until it was time for another tiebreaker. Once again it was Djokovic who rushed out to an early lead before letting Stepanek fight back into it.
This time, however, Djokovic caught a break with a Stepanek miss and then clipped the line with a passing shot to close it out. It was one of the best matches of the tournament to this point.
Wimbledon showcased the final point and the challenge that followed:
Looking ahead, the task certainly doesn't get any easier from here for the top seed. He will face Gilles Simon in the third round. Although he holds a 6-1 career record against the Frenchman, Simon is a former top-10 player and they haven't faced off since 2010.
Assuming he survives that match, he's in a top section of the draw that also features Jo-Wilfried Tsonga, Tomas Berdych and Marin Cilic, among others. A semifinal clash with Andy Murray likely looms if he does reach that point, as expected.
Aside from a brief hiccup in the third-set tiebreak, there's been little to suggest Djokovic is anything other than the tournament favorite.
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