NOVAK DJOKOVIC graciously bowed out of his bid to win four grand slams in a calendar year, but gave a hint of something being wrong after his shock Wimbledon exit to Sam Querrey.
The Serbian has been as close as there is to unbeatable for the best part of 18 months and arrived in London as the holder of all four men’s grand slam titles.
So good has he been that it was considered a formality by many that he would be the finalist from the top half of the draw and, in all likelihood a showpiece opponent for Britain’s Andy Murray.
That did not account for a meeting with Querrey, the big-serving American who had previously reached the fourth round of a grand slam on just three occasions.
Djokovic never looked at his best in a Court One clash severely hampered by rain, and when even an overnight delay at two sets down could not fire him up properly, it became clear that something was amiss.
He went on to lose 7-6 (8/6) 6-1 3-6 7-6 (7/5), and while full of praise for his conqueror – who sent down 31 aces – his refusal to speak about what may have been troubling him left more questions than it did answers.
“Congratulations to Sam, he played a terrific match,” said Djokovic – who in revealing he would not face Great Britain in the Davis Cup later this month gave Murray another boost.
“He served very well, as he usually does. That part of his game was brutal. Well done, he overpowered me.”
So unusual was Djokovic’s submission that the media felt moved to probe for reasons as to why. He was asked about the rain – which delayed this match three times – playing on Court One instead of Centre and his general demeanour.
“I don’t want to take anything out of victory for my opponent, I had my chances, served for the fourth set, led in the tie-break, but wasn’t feeling the ball as I wished,” he said.
“It’s not a place and time to talk about it, the opponent was playing at a high level and deserved to win.”
Asked about the court, he said: “I’m more comfortable on Centre, because I’ve played 90 per cent of matches there. Naturally I am going to feel better on there.”
Asked again if there was something bothering him, and when it was put to him that he had not looked himself during a morning practice, he said: “I don’t want to talk about it, please respect that.”
It was widely assumed that, having beaten Murray in the finals of the Australian and French Opens, the two would meet here too – with few tipping the Briton to beat him, so accustomed have fans and experts become to Djokovic’s success.
“I don’t think it (expectancy) played a big factor,” he said.
“I knew it was going to be very close.
“It’s an amazing feeling to hold all four Grand Slams at the same time, but coming to Wimbledon I knew it wouldn’t be easy. I re-motivated myself, but my best wasn’t good enough this year.”
Querrey said the victory was the best of his career, given the context.
“Yeah, definitely,” he said. “I think with the stage that it was at, here at Wimbledon, to beat Novak, who is playing at such a high level for the past five years, I would say so. It was tricky. I think we went on and off four times, including (Friday’s) two sets. So it made it tricky.
“I think going out I lost the first four games, and I think the rain delay helped me. I got to regroup. I broke back once in the third set, which helped me gain back a little momentum for the fourth set.
“It’s been a little bit tricky. It’s been a month of that with the French Open, Queen’s, Nottingham, the first few rounds here. Everybody is kind of used to it.”
Querrey added: “He made me earn it. He’s not a guy that goes away.
“He made me come out and win those big points.
“It was probably not the best he’s ever played, but not the worst he’s ever played.
“Everyone in the locker room has been so kind. Novak and his whole team couldn’t have been nicer.
“Everyone was happy for me and gave me some type of high five or congratulations.”
Australian great Rod Laver was the last man to complete the true Grand Slam, winning all four titles in one year, in 1969.
Laver also won the Grand Slam in 1962 and was only the second man to achieve the feat after American Don Budge in 1938.
He had hoped to pass on the Grand Slam mantle to Novak Djokovic.
“I’m still happy to have the title, but I don’t own it,” said Laver.
“I would have liked to have been at the US Open and be the first to shake Djokovic’s hand if he did it.
“Don Budge did that for me in 1962 at Forest Hills.’’
And Budge’s message? “Welcome to an exclusive club.”
Djokovic arrived at Wimbledon as the two-time defending champion and a clear favourite to make it three in a row.
His domination of tennis has been near total over the past 18 months, but it appeared the mental strain of his extraordinary run finally caught up with him.
Laver, now 77, felt Djokovic may have subconsciously switched off a little having achieved his goal of winning the French for the first time and making it four in a row.
“He just wasn’t himself, something was off,’’ said Laver.
“I think maybe he felt winning all four titles and being the defending champion of all four was a Grand Slam in his mind.
“And so even if it wasn’t in the calendar year, it didn’t matter.
“Way back in there somewhere you are thinking one thing, that it doesn’t matter, but you are thinking it does matter.
“Those are two different thoughts to have when you are playing.”