Jack Draper was milling around Wimbledon’s practice courts at Aorangi Park on Friday morning, unaware that the draw was taking place, when the 19-year-old caught a glimpse of his name in the top section and realised his first ever grand slam match would be against Novak Djokovic, the best player in the world, on the most famous court in the country.
Any kind of tension or trepidation would be completely understandable for an unproven teenager who has barely even had the chance to compete against top 100 players, yet he fearlessly embraced the moment and clearly demonstrated his talent. Eventually, Djokovic reeled in the world number 253 and moved on in four comfortable sets 4-6, 6-1, 6-2, 6-2.
“He’s a youngster, only 19. I haven’t seen him play for much prior to Queen’s that he played pretty well in,” said Djokovic afterwards. “Walking on to Wimbledon Centre Court for the first time, I think he has done extremely well. He carried himself very maturely on the court. He behaved well. He backed himself and he believed he could come back. He deserves credit for that and I wish him all the best.”
Despite his inexperience at the top level, Draper’s ability to trade shots with players towards the top of the game is no surprise. A son of the former LTA chief executive Roger Draper, he has been the most promising young talent in British men’s tennis for some time and after his run to the 2018 junior Wimbledon final he initially moved up the rankings swiftly before injuries struck. This month, he had his moment at Queen’s Club, where he overpowered Jannik Sinner and Alexander Bublik, both top 40 players, for his first ATP main draw match wins en route to the quarter-final.
When play finally began on Centre Court after a touching standing ovation for Dame Sarah Gilbert, who designed the AstraZeneca vaccine and was present in the Royal Box, Draper pinned Djokovic behind the baseline, moved him well enough for Djokovic to slip numerous times and he ended the first set with 11 winners. What was particularly notable was how he handled all of the tight moments in the early stages.
From his opening service game, Djokovic landed returns and Draper’s serve under pressure. He generated seven break points in total but each time Draper faced danger on his serve, he responded with a vicious lefty serve or a searing forehand behind it to scupper the danger. He held Djokovic to 0/7 on break points throughout the first set, thoroughly outplaying him on the big moments.
But the constant pressure the world No 1 put Draper’s serve under throughout the first set was telling and undoubtedly reassuring for Djokovic. As the second set began and Djokovic generated an eighth break point, Draper was finally unable to answer as he double faulted the break away.
Nobody slams the door shut like Djokovic. As he took control of the match and began to figure out Draper’s game, he spent the final three sets ruthlessly dismantling it. He exposed Draper’s so-so movement and he ravaged Draper’s biggest weakness – his return of serve. Djokovic served 25 aces in total and even in the opening set, he conceded just six of 24 return points. The Brit won just eight return points in the final three sets, including none in set three.
Draper departed to a roaring ovation, another impressive performance in a grass court summer filled with them. But this period has been just a brief taste of the player he could become. As he dips back down to ITF tournaments and ATP Challengers, the real work begins. How he applies himself and works away from the spotlight, when he is favoured to win his matches, will demonstrate whether and how quickly he can consolidate this momentum to become a regular face at the top of the sport. The journey alone will be engrossing.