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Novak Djokovic not at his best in Wimbledon debut

By HOWARD FENDRICH AP Tennis Writer

WIMBLEDON, England — Novak Djokovic’s play was not particularly, well, Djokovic-esque, at Wimbledon on Monday.

Even he acknowledged as much.

He got broken early and trailed 3-1 as he began his bid for a fourth consecutive championship and seventh overall at the grass-court Grand Slam tournament. He recovered to take that set, then dropped the next. He slipped and fell to the grass. He accumulated more unforced errors than his opponent. Maybe he was a bit under the weather; he grabbed tissues from a black box on the sideline and blew his nose. Maybe he was simply a bit off, not having played a match that mattered in nearly a full month.

This, though, is the top-seeded Djokovic, and there’s a reason he extended his winning streak at the All England Club to 22, and his career victory total there to 80 – making him the first player in tennis history with at least that many at each major – by beating Kwon Soon-woo of South Korea, 6-3, 3-6, 6-3, 6-4, at Centre Court under the retractable roof.

And there’s a reason that friends of the wife of Kwon’s coach, Daniel Yoo, held up decorated signs in a player guest box bearing Korean messages that Yoo said meant “Fight!” and “Don’t get hurt!”

So Kwon walked on court jittery. But after just two games, the 81st-ranked Kwon said through Yoo’s translation, “I felt like, ‘Oh, this is doable. … I can hang with him a little bit.’”

With the exception of a loss for No. 7 seed Hubert Hurkacz, a semifinalist at the All England Club a year ago, Day 1 signaled a fairly routine return to pre-pandemic normal, with capacity crowds, zero masks, the Wimbledon Queue in full effect and, of course, on-and-off-and-on-again showers.

Hurkacz, coming off a grass title over the weekend, lost, 7-6 (4), 6-4, 5-7, 2-6, 7-6 (10-8), to Alejandro Davidovich Fokina in a match that featured Wimbledon’s new final-set format: women’s third sets and men’s fifth sets that get to 6-all will go to a first-to-10-and-win-by-two tiebreaker.

That might as well be called the John Isner Rule, owing to the American’s 70-68 fifth-set victory over Nicolas Mahut in 2010 and 26-24 fifth-set loss to Kevin Anderson in 2018, both at Wimbledon, both before the tournament adopted deciding-set tiebreakers.

On Monday, Isner was back on Court 18, the site of the Mahut marathon, and smacked 54 aces in a 6-7 (6), 7-6 (3), 4-6, 6-3, 7-5 victory over Enzo Couacaud. Isner’s next match figures to be held at a bigger court, because he’ll be facing Andy Murray, who has won two of this three major championships at Wimbledon.

Murray’s 4-6, 6-3, 6-2, 6-4 win over James Duckworth came at Centre Court and followed another triumph there by a British major title winner, reigning U.S. Open champ Emma Raducanu.

“From the moment I walked out through those gates, I could really just feel the energy and the support and everyone was behind me from the word ‘go,’” the 19-year-old Raducanu said after defeating Alison Van Uytvanck, 6-4, 6-4. “I just really tried to cherish every single point out there. Played every point like it could have been one of my last on that court.”

Djokovic, a 35-year-old from Serbia, had not played since losing to rival Rafael Nadal in the French Open quarterfinals and it seemed to show. Kwon’s piercing, flat groundstrokes and soft drop shots were effective for stretches.

“I did not start, or did not play, at my best,” said Djokovic, whose 20 Grand Slam trophies are tied with Roger Federer for the second-most in men’s tennis history behind Nadal’s 22. “But I think when I needed to find the right shots, I did. I think (my) serve got me out of trouble in some decisive moments. I know I can do better.”

Keep in mind, too, that this might very well be Djokovic’s last major event of this season – and for 11 more months, until the 2023 French Open.

As things stand, he will not be allowed into the United States as a foreigner who hasn’t gotten his COVID-19 shots and must miss the U.S. Open, which begins in August. He also could end up sitting out a second consecutive Australian Open because he is unvaccinated – a status he said Saturday he would not consider changing.

After Monday’s match, Djokovic said he’s not thinking ahead to New York at the moment but added: “I’m hoping some things can change and that I’ll be able to go and compete. I would want to.”

CILIC OUT AFTER POSITIVE COVID TEST

Marin Cilic says he is not able to play in the tournament because he tested positive for COVID-19.

The 2014 U.S. Open champion and 2017 Wimbledon runner-up wrote on Instagram on Monday that he has been self-isolating and was hoping he would get better in time for the tournament.

But he added that he is still feeling unwell.

Cilic will be replaced in the draw by 123rd-ranked Nuno Borges of Portugal.

Borges lost during qualifying for Wimbledon. Now he will face Mackenzie McDonald of the United States in the first round of the main draw on Tuesday.

Cilic was coming off a semifinal run at the French Open earlier this month. That made him the fifth active man to complete a full set of semifinal appearances at all four major tournaments, joining Rafael Nadal, Novak Djokovic, Roger Federer and Andy Murray.

PLAYER, CANDY RESCUE FAINTING BALL BOY

Quick reactions are a hallmark of being a professional tennis player, and Jodie Burrage showed the Wimbledon crowd she could respond to adversity quickly.

The British player noticed a ballboy who was feeling faint on the sidelines during her match on Monday, then rushed over to make sure he was OK. She first gave him a sports drink, then some nutritional gel before a spectator handed over a bag of candy.

“Just tried to get him some sugar, gave him a Gatorade and a gel. The gel is not the nicest thing, so they managed to find some Percy Pigs somewhere along the line in the crowd, which he got down and then started to feel better,” Burrage said. “Hopefully he’s feeling better now.”

The match was stopped for about 10 minutes until the boy was helped off the court.

Unfortunately for the 23-year-old Burrage, her heroics didn’t help her in the match. She lost to Lesia Tsurenko, 6-2, 6-3, on the opening day of the tournament.

Burrage said she noticed the ballboy was in distress and wanted to help.

“I just reacted how I think anyone would. He was not in a good spot,” Burrage said. “I just tried to help him out as much as possible.”

More help came from the crowd in the form of the chewy candy.

“I definitely love a Percy Pig, that’s for sure,” Burrage said. “I was just like, ‘This kid needs sugar.’ He wasn’t liking the gel. I was like, ‘Yeah, definitely need something else.’ Someone just shouted on the side, ‘Got some sweets here if you want.’ They were Percy Pigs.”

Burrage made her debut at Wimbledon last year and also lost in the first round. But she’ll get another chance this year in women’s doubles. She and Eden Silva will play their first match later in the week.

“Really looking forward to that,” Burrage said. “Hopefully I can get over the line in that one.”

UKRAINIANS HAVE WAR ON MIND

It’s tough to keep your mind focused on tennis when your family’s home in Ukraine is being bombed.

Anhelina Kalinina and Lesia Tsurenko did just that at Wimbledon on Monday, winning their opening matches at the grass-court Grand Slam tournament to set up a second-round meeting between the two.

“Thank God they are alive, they are safe,” Kalinina said of her family, explaining that their home was destroyed in a Russian attack during the war. “But they live like many other Ukrainians, (from their) bags, so you never know what’s going to happen tomorrow because everything looks like sometimes quiet. But then yesterday was two rockets in Kyiv, in the center.”

The 29th-seeded Kalinina advanced to the second round by beating Anna Bondar, 4-6, 6-2, 6-4. Tsurenko defeated British wild-card entry Jodie Burrage, 6-2, 6-3.

“I don’t feel good,” said Tsurenko, who is worried because her home in the capital is close to a spot that’s been under attack. “So every time is like my area, my area of the city where I live, get bombed … I think when the war started, I start to feel this tension inside of me, and I think even if I work every day with psychologist and I try to, I don’t know, anyway, try to avoid this emotions, it’s impossible.”

Neither player will have to face Russian or Belarusian opponents, because athletes from those countries have been banned from competing at Wimbledon this year. As a result of that decision, no ranking points will be awarded to players during the tournament.

“I was not really happy with that decision,” Tsurenko said, though she added that she agreed with the ban. “I think that the sanctions and all the sportsmen getting banned from sport from Russia and Belarus, there is a big reason for that … I think that those decisions are right and the sanctions are right.”

Kalinina said it wasn’t fair to consider the issue of ranking points when talking about a war.

“We can’t compare WTA points, we cannot compare this ban of these players to what’s going on currently in Ukraine,” Kalinina said. “We cannot compare this what they are now missing and how many millions of people are killed, still dying, and how many refugees are brought and surviving, with mothers with their kids, people are out of money, out of family, out of their jobs.

“They don’t have anything. They are like homeless.”

At the French Open, Tsurenko lamented the fact that more of her fellow players weren’t coming out in support of Ukraine. But she and Kalinina have been getting plenty of support from the crowd.

One of these two will reach the third round, and they plan to talk about what they can do in their match to bring some more recognition to their country.

“We’ll see,” Kalinina said. “We will discuss.”

AP sports writer Chris Lehourites contributed to this story.

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