Novak Djokovic returns to Wimbledon Center Court as he chases record-equaling 20th Grand Slam title

As Wimbledon tennis returns for the first time in two years on Monday, there is a palpable sense that no player — veteran or up-and-comer — is taking this opportunity to compete on the hallowed grass of the All England Club for granted.

Unlike the other three Grand Slams that were successfully staged in 2020, Wimbledon was canceled for the first time since World War II last season due to the pandemic.

On Monday, world No.1 and two-time defending champion Novak Djokovic will open play on Center Court, 715 days after he saved two match points en route to a five-hour victory over Roger Federer in the 2019 final.

History is on the line this fortnight on both the men’s and women’s sides, as Djokovic chases Federer and Rafael Nadal’s men’s record of 20 majors won, and Serena Williams continues her quest to equal Margaret Court’s all-time mark of 23 Grand Slam trophies.

Djokovic secured his 19th slam earlier this month, on the clay courts of Roland Garros, to become the first man in the Open Era to win each of the four majors twice.

“The level of confidence is pretty high,” the 34-year-old Djokovic told reporters at SW19 on Saturday.

“Obviously winning the two majors this year, playing very well in Roland Garros; that tournament took a lot out of me I think mentally and physically and emotionally. It also granted me with an incredible amount of positive energy and confidence that created a wave that I’m trying to ride.”

Federer and Williams turn 40 in a few weeks’ time and arrive at the championships knowing this could be one of their last chances to add to their Grand Slam tallies.

Williams will be contesting her 20th edition of the tournament, while Federer is set to compete in his 22nd, but this will be a Wimbledon like nothing they’ve ever experienced before. With a secure bio-bubble in place, the players have all been forced to stay in specific hotels and are following strict protocols to ensure everyone’s safety during the pandemic.

Wimbledon is the one major where most stars rent houses each year for themselves and their families within the vicinity of the All England Club. They get to go grocery shopping, throw barbeques, cycle up and down Church Road, and some of them even turn up at the famous pubs that line the High Street at Wimbledon Village.

There will be none of that this year though.

“It’s the bubble. It doesn’t matter what the (hotel) room size is, whatever, it’s just living the bubble life is different,” acknowledged Federer on Saturday.

“It took me some getting used to the first day or two. I’m embracing it. Yeah, it does feel totally different than the last 20 years here since I’ve been coming here.

“But look, I still feel a big privilege that I’m actually able to play Wimbledon,” he added. “If I look back at everything that I went through for the last year and a bit more with the injury, also with the pandemic, it’s great that Wimbledon is back on.”

Federer has played just eight matches this season, having returned from a one-year break in March, after undergoing two knee surgeries.

Andy Murray is another player relishing the chance to compete on Center Court again as the two-time champion hopes to keep his physical woes in check to make his first singles appearance at Wimbledon since 2017.

Multiple hip surgeries and several injury-interrupted seasons have not broken the gravitational pull tennis seems to have on Murray.

“I don’t know exactly what it is. I think some of it is deep-rooted. It’s just been something that I’ve done my whole life,” he said. “So letting go of that obviously would be a difficult thing to do. I also miss being on Center Court, things like that. I miss the pressure of that, as well. That’s something I’m looking forward to feeling again.”

The former world No.1 missed the opening two slams of the season, catching Covid before the Australian Open, and opting out of Roland Garros to focus on Wimbledon. He practiced with Federer on Friday ahead of his first-round clash with No. 24 seed Nikoloz Basilashvili.

Two of the world’s top five, Nadal and Dominic Thiem, have not made the trip to Wimbledon with the former choosing to take a break and the latter sustaining a right wrist injury last week in Mallorca.

World No.1 and 2019 French Open winner Ashleigh Barty headlines the women’s field that is missing defending champion Simona Halep, who had to withdraw with a lingering calf injury. The second-ranked Naomi Osaka is also an absentee as she is taking a break for mental health reasons.

Barty, who lifted the junior title as a 15-year-old at Wimbledon in 2011, will kick-off Center Court play on Tuesday — an honor typically given to the defending champion but deferred to the Australian top seed in Halep’s absence.

“Over the last couple of years, I’ve learnt a lot about myself. And in particular last year being away and kind of not having the opportunity to play here at Wimbledon, it almost reminded me of how much I do love coming here and how much this tournament means to me,” said Barty, who begins her campaign against the soon-to-be retired Spaniard Carla Suarez Navarro.

“One day I would love to be the champion here. It’s a dream. It’s a goal.”

Another former junior champion in the draw is seventh-seeded Iga Swiatek. The 20-year-old Pole, who won Roland Garros last autumn, admits she has some catching up to do to get her grass-court game on par with her clay-court prowess.

Swiatek is in awe of Federer and Williams, and the longevity of their careers.

“It’s great they can play on the highest level at that age,” she said. “It shows that their whole career was basically led in a very smart way. I have such a great respect for that.”

“I think it’s great that we have ‘Next Gen’ and all these players are coming up, and also players who are really experienced,” Swiatek added. “It’s a great opportunity to be on the same tournaments as the ‘GOATs’, I’m pretty happy about that.”

Williams, the No.6 seed, landed in the top half of the draw and faces Belarus’ Aliaksandra Sasnovich in her opener on Tuesday. The American has made the final on each of her last four appearances at Wimbledon, losing her most recent two to Halep and Angelique Kerber.

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