Andre Agassi needed several tubes of sunscreen to get through the afternoon (a chap of limited follicular coverage has to be careful) but his charge, Novak Djokovic, the No.2 seed, only needed three sets.
Djokovic handled the potentially awkward challenge of Ernests Gulbis 6-4, 6-1, 7-6 (2) and moved on to set up camp in the second week of The Championships. There he will meet Adrian Mannarino of France on Monday.
“I’m delighted with what I achieved today,” Djokovic said. “I raised the level of tennis. Comparing to the first couple of matches and the last couple of weeks, I think this was the most focused I was on the court and obviously at the right time because Gulbis, he is a great challenge.
“He is very unpredictable and he’s got a huge serve. The average is around 125, 140 mph. He started very well, he was a break up but then I managed to win seven or eight games in a row and that gave me a lot of confidence. Just in general, I’m very pleased with the way I felt and the way I played.”
The fabulously talented but infuriatingly erratic Gulbis has had some decent highs in his career – three years ago he was the world No.10 – but he has also had some miserable lows. Some of those dips were self-induced (practice and Ernie have sometimes been unhappy bedfellows) and some have been injury-induced.
His current dip and ranking of No.589 is as a result of a shoulder injury that plagued him for much of last year and a wrist problem, calf problem and a stomach muscle problem that has limited his season so far. He only made it into the main draw due with an injury-protected ranking of No.99 and has only played eight matches – and won two of them – all year. And one of those wins was at a Challenger event.
The Gulbis forehand used to be a thing of wonder – not in terms of wondering how he did it but, rather, why. Preparing to strike with his right arm held out behind him and his left arm straight out in front, he could welt the ball well enough but he looked like a 747 banking on its final approach to London Heathrow.
The shot has gone through many incarnations in its time. The jumbo-jet-in-flight look was a deliberate development to make the stroke more reliable. Odd, but reliable.
As he has said in the past, if he does not pick up a racket for two months, his backhand does not deviate from the norm, not by a millimetre. But his forehand – that could wander off piste between his morning and afternoon practice sessions. So, with the very deliberate wind up, he managed to iron out some of the irregularities.
But while he was sorting out his shoulder issues last year, he also had another look at his forehand and opted to abbreviate the action. The wind-up is still exaggerated with the right hand but the left hand is no longer flying high. And from time to time, the shot was doing some damage but then sometimes it wasn’t. But that is just Gulbis.
Djokovic was clearly wary of what was waiting for him on Centre Court and he was edgy from the off. Broken in the third game thanks to that Gulbis forehand and a couple of backhands to match, he was soon giving the umpire, Jake Garner, some advice on the etiquette of the challenge system.
“Focus, please!” was his parting shot to the man in the chair but, really, it was advice to himself. He needed to lower his heart rate, take a breath and wait for the whirlwind on the other side of the net to blow itself out.
That Gulbis duly did. Serving at 4-3 and with the set on his racquet strings, he played a stinker of a service game – including a double fault on break point – and in a handful of points the match had run away from him. He lost nine games in a row to drop the first two sets while Djokovic was back to his calm and efficient self.
A stint with the trainer before the start of the third set to ease his aching back (and the trainer did appear to be trying to tie poor Ernie in a knot) helped a bit but it was too little, too late. Gulbis served better, he moved better and he cut down on the unforced errors but by this point, Djokovic was in charge.
The former champion was alert to any danger, he was sharp and clever with his shot selection and he was not going to let Gulbis anywhere near the fourth round. After two hours and 13 minutes, Djokovic was through and Agassi could take cover in the air-conditioned comfort of the clubhouse. Job done.
Source: Alix Ramsay| Wimbledon