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Wimbledon: Novak Djokovic avoids upset to beat Kwon Soon-woo

Since arriving at the Australian border, Novak Djokovic hasn’t been caught so unprepared. Give him some leeway, the stranger at the gate came up with a little less warning this time.

Had you heard of Kwon Soon-woo? Did you know that he is number 81 in the world, without a win against a member of the top 10, and was better known back home in Korea for dressing up as a car on Masked Singer?

Great player as it turns out. He strips fuzz off balls with his forehand, he likes a drop shot and he used both to take Djokovic into deeper water than ever seemed likely when the first round draw went round. It was a wonderful brand of resistance.

Novak Djokovic reached the second round at Wimbledon after winning in four sets

Novak Djokovic reached the second round at Wimbledon after winning in four sets

It was not the most convincing performance of the Serb who dropped the second set

It was not the most convincing performance of the Serb who dropped the second set

Djokovic shakes hands with South Korea's Kwon Soon-woo, who managed to test the best seed

Djokovic shakes hands with South Korea’s Kwon Soon-woo, who managed to test the best seed

A four-setter meant the struggle ended without major drama, especially when compared to the kind of trouble Djokovic has brought on himself this year. But it was scrap. It was competitive. And for short flicks, it had the potential to be more, especially as the 24-year-old had a break at 2-2 in the third, before Djokovic cut through 6-3, 3-6, 6-3, 6-4 in a dash. under two and a half hours.

It remains to be seen where this latest walk across the lawns will take him, if we’re to avoid the obvious answers surrounding a man who’s been undefeated here since 2017. But a lot of sludge has passed under the Serb’s bridge since his third consecutive Wimbledon crown year, and at 35, with no real preparation on the lawn, we have to wonder where he stands.

The first sightings here pointed to a poor serve that didn’t start until the fourth set and a mind-boggling 29 unforced errors. Talking him out is usually an exercise in confused thinking, but it was undeniably a slow start to his tournament.

“Thanks to Kwon for playing very high quality tennis,” he said. And yes, quite.

“When you enter the tournament without any pre-Wimbledon matches, you always feel less comfortable than you would like, especially against someone so talented. It was really hard to go through him so I had to tactically find a way.

“If he had broken my serve in the third set, this match could have been different. I was happy to be on the winning side.’

Despite everything, i.e. a vaccination stance that has caused so much controversy, Djokovic was roared on and off the pitch. More than usual actually. Considering his popularity rarely kept pace with his successes, that was perhaps a little surprising. Or maybe not – this is Wimbledon after all.

Unseeded Kwon made a brave attempt and even took the second set 6-3

Unseeded Kwon made a brave attempt and even took the second set 6-3

As for tennis, it soon became clear that it was not going to be an easy walk. Djokovic led off by dumping a routine backhand into the net on the first run, and while surviving that service game via deuce, he was broken 2-1 in the next, undone by a pair of thunderous Kwon forehands.

That forehand was the Korean’s main weapon—that and a pulse of inspiration for big occasions—but it was clearly helped by rust on the other side. Kwon had never beaten a top-10 player before, but loved the challenge.

The 24-year-old drove that wave to 3-2, but a backhand wide gave Djokovic the break, and then another in the net pushed the latter to 5-3. The journey from a minor drama to a 6-3 first set took 20 minutes.

The quality of Djokovic eventually turned out to be too much for the 24-year-old South Korean

The quality of Djokovic eventually turned out to be too much for the 24-year-old South Korean

The six-time Wimbledon winner made an excellent recovery after losing the second set of the match

The six-time Wimbledon winner made an excellent recovery after losing the second set of the match

The second set was briefly interrupted by a medical situation in the audience and when it resumed, Djokovic made another clumsy start. He served 2-1 behind and put a mid-court forehand into the net to allow a break, then failed to convert from 0-40 in the next game. This was unusual.

With 4-2 to Kwon, Djokovic cackled for himself between the points. At 5-3, both men stared at scenarios that would be considered extremely unusual. After a break so that a second member of the crowd could get medical attention, Kwon reached the set point with a delicious drop shot from the back of the field and closed when Djokovic blew up a long forehand. This time it was roar for the underdog.

The numbers at this stage were alarming. While Kwon was playing the game of his life, aided by 15 winners, so many of them coming from those forehands and drops, Djokovic had coughed up 15 unforced fouls – unreachable for him – and only got half of his first serve.

He survived another breakpoint at 2-2 in the third and remained in a state of discomfort until 4-3, when he had his own shot at the advantage. A netted backhand from Kwon allowed it and from there Djokovic served.

The Korean still fired winners at the start of the fourth – 27 in the first two hours, three more than the top spots – but eventually his mistakes got the better of him. He slipped to 0-40 at 2-2 and put a forehand wide, giving Djokovic the break. Only then did we see him in his stride. He finished with an ace and for the first time in a few hours could breathe a little easier.

The 35-year-old Serb is aiming for four Wimbledon victories in a row

The 35-year-old Serb is aiming for four Wimbledon victories in a row

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