Back to Wimbledon but not exactly back to business for Novak Djokovic. There was a moment where it appeared the six-time Wimbledon champion had found an unlikely sanctuary after the events of the past 12 months but thanks to controlled aggression from the unheralded Soonwoo Kwon, Djokovic was faced with an afternoon that, like his year, was far from straightforward.
There was a storm brewing on Centre Court as Kwon served out the second set, and that wasn’t just overhead as the rain pittered on the closed roof to the sound of thunder above the All England Club. The 24-year-old troubled Djokovic at times with a big serve, patience in the lengthy exchanges and an exquisite touch at the net that really should have been utilised more often.
It gave Djokovic a brief scare but as Kwon’s accuracy waned the size of the task at hand for a player ranked 81 in the world became clear, as the top seed and favourite for the men’s title rattled out a 6-3 3-6 6-3 6-4 win.
In the end it was a welcome homecoming for Djokovic, who will attempt to win his fourth consecutive title this year. There was a thought that Djokovic may have been treated with some scepticism on his first appearance at SW19 since he was deported from Australia following a row over his medical exemption for the Covid-19 vaccine – but that was quickly dispelled on the opening Monday of play, as the defending men’s champion took the traditional opening slot on Centre Court.
Indeed, Djokovic was greeted as a player who is attempting to move one short of Roger Federer’s record of eight titles should really be, even if he remains a figure who has never truly felt the love from this hallowed arena. Part of the problem of having a record as dominant as Djokovic’s at Wimbledon, is it does not take much for the crowd to get behind the underdog when there is even a faint whiff of an upset.
There was more than that when Kwon served for the second set at 5-3, as the South Korean received a standing ovation at the start of his task. From 0-30 down and to the delight of the crowd, he whipped out the three notes that had got him to that point; first taking on Djokovic shot for shot in a baseline rally, then playing a delicious drop shot and finishing with a big serve out wide that Djokovic could not return.
It was a thrilling and unexpected performance from a player who has only reached the third round of a grand slam on one occasion and has just the one ATP Tour title to his name. Kwon could not hide the grin on his face as he turned after flashing a forehand winner past Djokovic early in the third set. Yes, this was really happening, and the end result could have been different had he taken break point chances in the early exchanges of the final two sets.
Instead, Djokovic raised his level, particularly at 15-40 his opening service game of the fourth. Kwon blinked on a forehand into the net before Djokovic fired an ace, played a perfect lob and then stretched to reach a Kwon pass in a brilliant piece of defence, with the 24-year-old drooping a drop shot into the net. From there Djokovic cranked up the pressure and the break to love in the fifth game of the fourth put an end to Kwon’s resistance.
Djokovic received a standing ovation after closing out a win, on the court he holds above any other. “I’ve said this before but this court is truly special,” Djokovic said. “For me it has always been the court I dreamed of playing and winning and all my childhood dreams came true here so it’s an honour and pleasure to be back.” It may have taken a set longer than planned, but he had found his home again.