Novak Djokovic is never going to be loved by the Wimbledon crowd but they are far too polite in these parts to boo. After all, this is the All England Club, a place that invented the phrase ‘gentle applause’.
Some might say the problem is simply he isn’t Rafael Nadal or Roger Federer, in truth Djokovic’s major issue has always been himself.
It’s not that he doesn’t have a personality, it’s just he foot faults on that fine line between confidence and arrogance just a little too often, while his casual relationship with the facts over all things Covid has hardly improved that reputation.
Another win for the defending champion this fortnight would move him to within one of Federer’s all-time Wimbledon record.
But in the popularity stakes, while the absent Swiss star will always be the darling of an adoring Centre Court, Djokovic is playing on a pot-hole pitted public court somewhere near Tooting.
He was greeted by a chorus of jeers when he opened his campaign at the recent French Open, his first Slam appearance after missing the Australian Open following a ten-day spat over his medical exemption for the Covid-19 vaccine.
Nothing so unseemly here, as his title defence began with a 6-3 3-6 6-3 6-4 win over South Korea’s Soonwoo Kwon, who briefly sniffed an upset before he was outmuscled by a player seeking his fourth consecutive win.
Djokovic looked rusty, several times slipping on the pristine grass, but he never looked like losing – his winning run here now 22 matches.
“I was pleasantly surprised by how I was received,” said Djokovic. “I felt support and the crowd were very fair to me and I enjoyed my time on the court.
“The period post Australia was challenging emotionally for me but in terms of my motivation on the court, nothing has changed. In those first few tournaments, the sensation of coming back on the court with everything that happened was different and not very nice. Right now I don’t feel that, I’ve just moved on.
“It feels great to be back, it’s a unique match to play as a defending champion and a very special feeling.
“It was a good win against a very talented player with a lot of quality. I didn’t play at my best but when I needed to find the right shots I did and my serve got me out of trouble in some decisive moments. I know I can do better but for the first match I’m pleased because he really made me work for it.
“I didn’t have any lead up tournaments so it was always going to be a bit rusty.”
Djokovic is doing his best to move on from what happened in Australia but his deportation for breaching border rules remains a story that won’t really go away.
As things stands this could be his final Grand Slam tournament until next year’s French Open – he can’t play the US Open because travel to the States is not possible without a Covid vaccination.
Meanwhile under Australian immigration law, Djokovic cannot be granted another visa for three years unless politicians accept there are compelling or compassionate reasons, it’s fair to say Wimbledon is more likely to introduce walk-on music than that happen.
“At this moment it’s the case I won’t be in New York, that motivates me more to make the most out of this tournament,” he added.
“I’m not thinking so far ahead, I’m just hoping some things will change and I can go and compete. Right now my attention is here at Wimbledon.”