Novak Djokovic has not lost a match at Wimbledon since 2017.
The Serbian star has returned to one of his happiest hunting grounds in the sport, practising this week at the All England Club ahead of a tilt at a seventh Wimbledon title.
He has won the past three editions of the tournament – 2018, 2019 and 2021 – and carries a 21-match winning streak into the 2022 Championships.
And having won 14 of his past 17 matches, he will open the Centre Court schedule on Monday as the defending champion with plenty of momentum behind him.
Six-time champion sighting 🧐#Wimbledon pic.twitter.com/uge6aNaN2u— Wimbledon (@Wimbledon) June 20, 2022
“The guys that have had a good clay-court run, that's a lot of matches and a lot of tennis. That always stands you in good stead for the grass,” noted former Australian pro Wally Masur.
“There are just little benefits to Novak on the grass that I think do make him a heavy favourite for me.
“He's always had a very underrated serve… With grass, he just gets that little bit extra out of it. And then it's just so hard to make Novak block a return; it doesn't seem to matter who's serving against him, he gets full-blooded swings on return.
“You've got to hold your serve on grass, but a lot of people can do that. But Novak's just ruthless on return. And you combine that with his movement; he doesn't lose anything with his movement on grass, whereas for some players it can be problematic.
“That (all) just makes him my favourite this year.”
Djokovic’s grass-court pedigree positions him as distinct from almost everyone else in the 128-player field.
The tournament is already missing top-10 stars Daniil Medvedev, Alexander Zverev and Andrey Rublev, as well as eight-time winner Roger Federer.
Fellow champions Rafael Nadal and Andy Murray are hopeful of playing, yet are under injury clouds.
Casper Ruud and Stefanos Tsitsipas, elevated to No.3 and No.4 seed respectively, have never thrived on grass, while promising fifth seed Carlos Alcaraz is almost completely untested on it.
Matteo Berrettini and Hubert Hurkacz are surging on the surface, but Djokovic holds a collective 8-0 win-loss record against them, and has also beaten both of them at Wimbledon; that particular win over Berrettini came in last year's final.
Great to be back on grass 🌱 I always look forward to playing my childhood dream tournament 😄 #Wimbledon— Novak Djokovic (@DjokerNole) June 22, 2022
Лепо је поново играти на трави. Радујем се новом изазову на турниру који је одувек био мој дечачки сан 🙌 pic.twitter.com/X4fZNLejqm
Masur, who reached the second week at Wimbledon three times himself, believes the rest of the field could take heart from the fact Djokovic is arguably less sharp than he was 12 months ago, when he romped to the Wimbledon title for the loss of only two sets.
“I actually tipped Djokovic to win the French,” said Masur, who was impressed by Djokovic’s run to the Rome title.
“What was interesting for me was when he did run up against Nadal (in the Roland Garros quarterfinals)... when it really got to the nitty-gritty, those big moments, when Novak is usually so good, was there a little bit of self-doubt? Was he not on auto-pilot, because he hadn't had the same six months leading into the French that he normally would have?
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“I don't know. But he just seemed to falter. And full credit to Nadal of course, he just never goes away. Maybe Novak will be better for that moment with Rafa at the French?
“If history is any indicator, setbacks just make Novak more determined. He really is amazing, just how driven he is.”
As Djokovic targets a seventh trophy at SW19, we assess his biggest threats to a title he has made his own in the past decade.
Berrettini missed three months of the season due to hand surgery, but since returning for the grass-court swing, he hasn’t lost a match.
The Italian’s vicious serve, forehand and slice backhand have helped him scoop back-to-back titles in Stuttgart and Queen’s.
Last year’s Wimbledon finalist is now 36-7 lifetime on grass and will hope to have learned from his experience of his first major final 12 months ago, during which he revealed he was beset by nerves.
"Berrettini is obviously undeniable after his last couple of weeks,” Masur said. "Both he and Hurkacz are going to go up in the seedings; they're going to be two people for me to keep an eye on.”
Speaking of Hurkacz, he won the Halle title the same week Berrettini triumphed at Queen’s.
It was an incredible run at the German tournament that saw the Pole beat Felix Auger-Aliassime, Nick Kyrgios and Daniil Medvedev to win his first ATP title on grass.
Hurkacz was also a semifinalist at Wimbledon last year, another demonstration of his potency on the surface.
"He's just not a guy you can push around,” Masur observed. “He's big, and with that comes the serve – and when he hits it, it just stays hit. He's going to be dangerous.”
Immediately after winning Roland Garros, Nadal underwent a radiofrequency ablation nerve treatment in the hope of relieving pain associated with a chronic foot condition.
He has reportedly responded well to the treatment – he has since practised on grass in both Mallorca and London – and intends to play at Wimbledon.
Nadal failed to pass the fourth round from 2012 to 2017 but more recently made back-to-back semifinals in 2018 and 2019.
This time around, with the Australian Open and Roland Garros titles already under his belt, he is, astonishingly, targeting the third leg of a calendar-year Grand Slam.
RELATED: With 14th Roland Garros title, Nadal halfway to Grand Slam
“Rafa's Rafa. You cannot deny him. And he's won the title – he knows absolutely how to go about winning a Grand Slam title at Wimbledon,” said Masur of the 2008 and 2010 winner.
🗣 @RafaelNadal has The Championships in his sights... #Wimbledon pic.twitter.com/QZVnrIpKvc— Wimbledon (@Wimbledon) June 17, 2022
Another two-time Wimbledon champion is Andy Murray, who was showing impressive form on grass in Stuttgart – he beat Tsitsipas and Kyrgios back-to-back – before an abdominal strain affected him in his finals loss to Berrettini.
The British veteran has not played a match since, but is hoping to be healthy enough to contest a 14th Wimbledon.
"There's a guy who knows how to move on grass,” said Masur of Murray, who prior to Stuttgart reached the semifinals of the grass-court Challenger in Surbiton.
Fresh after skipping the European clay-court season, Kyrgios has thrived on grass, reaching back-to-back semifinals in Stuttgart and Halle and winning seven of his nine matches on the surface.
Kyrgios was a Wimbledon quarterfinalist in 2014 and also reached the second week in 2015 and 2016. Like Murray, his unseeded status will make him a dangerous first-round prospect.
"There's a lot of seeds that he is going to beat,” Masur warned.
The Croatian veteran enjoyed a resurgence with a semifinal at Roland Garros, and after transitioning to his favoured grass, backed that up with a semifinal run at Queen’s.
Cilic has now won eight of his past 10 matches and, having returned to the top 20, heads to Wimbledon where he was a runner-up in 2017.