Resurgent Novak Djokovic poses serious threat as men's draw heats up

LONDON -- A chill wind began to blow through the grounds of the All England Club late in the day on Manic Monday, signalling change. It drove away the searing heat that had held the tournament in its grip, blew off baseball caps, cooled the baking courts and wilting geraniums.

Out on Court No. 1, on the same turf where Novak Djokovic's unexpected fall from grace began with a third-round loss to Sam Querrey in 2016, that gusting, swirling breeze forecast change of a different sort. It did not appear to bother Djokovic very much, and over the past two years this had been a man easily troubled. Just weeks ago he might have been unnerved by the conditions, a symbol of his own inner turmoil, sent to torment him. Not anymore.

This was a different Djokovic from the struggling, self-doubting philosopher of recent times. He mastered the difficult conditions with aplomb, kicking his protracted comeback into high gear with a tidy, controlled, three-set win over rising 22-year-old Russian star Karen Khachanov. On Wednesday, he'll play Kei Nishikori (Djokovic leads their series 13-2) for a place in the semifinals.

Whatever the outcome of that one, the 31-year-old, three-time former Wimbledon champion has looked a lot like his former, assertive self since the start of this tournament.

"I felt like in the last month and a half, the level of tennis has been very close to where I would like it to be, where I'm used to having it, so to say, and playing on," Djokovic said Monday. "Wimbledon is obviously a very special tournament. So then I guess it gets the best out of you. It makes you focus."

Among those who endorse and welcome the idea that Djokovic has turned the corner is his short-lived coach but still loyal supporter, Andre Agassi. "It's great to see Novak healthy and finding his form," Agassi wrote to ESPN.com in a text. "He's fun to watch and great for the game and easy for me to root for after the time we spent together."

There have been numerous signals of a Djokovic renaissance, starting with the pugnacious stance he took with a group of fans who were pestering him during his third-round match with the last British hope left standing, Kyle Edmund. The fans took umbrage to the amount of time Djokovic was taking between points -- the chair umpire did as well, slapping Djokovic with a time violation warning -- and the number of times he bounced the ball between serves.

Fed up with their fake coughing and whistling as he prepared to serve, Djokovic engaged, shooting them looks and muttering. He even blew them poisoned kisses. "They [the fans] kept on going, they kept on going, provoking," Djokovic explained afterward. "That's something that I can tolerate for a little bit, but I'm going to show that I'm present, as well -- that they can't do whatever they feel like doing."

Djokovic has let his racket fly a few times, allowed a choice bellow now and then to express his frustration when he has made a silly error or wasted a choice opportunity.

This man is a far cry from the insecure, peevish player who was on display earlier in the clay-court season. Then, if he happened to miss a line by an inch or so, he would pinch his thumb and index finger together and shake his head in mock dismay, telling the world how unfair it was that he missed. When a journeyman opponent's shot cleaned a line Djokovic's face said "lucky" rather than "too good," and he sometimes flung out his arms in a gesture of disgust that suggested it was all the stupid court's fault.

"Psychologically, obviously [it's been hard]," Djokovic said. "I was so fortunate to have so much success on the tour over the course of 10-plus years. I was a top-three player for so many years in a row, it was quite a strange feeling for me not to be able to deliver my game that I know that I possess, that I know I've been delivering for so many years. It was frustrating, to be honest."

Remaining Wimbledon contenders take note: The forensics of the Manic Monday encounter with Khachanov were filled with vintage Djokovic elements. Granted, Khachanov is just 22 years old. He was unprepared for the wind that kicked up shortly before the 6:55 p.m. start time and made the ball toss an adventure. But wind hurts the returner, too, yet Djokovic managed to earn 14 break points (Khachanov had just three), winning seven. The main reason: Djokovic consistently got his return into play. When a rally ensued, he was able to make Khachanov hit one more ball than his game is built to handle.

Khachanov has now played all of the Big Four, so he has some grounds for comparison. He thinks Djokovic is ready to challenge anyone for the title. "He's playing great now," Khachanov said. "OK, he struggled beginning of the year, maybe a few months, but he found a way. He's back."

The curious thing about Djokovic's resurgence is that he has been on the cusp of a full-blown comeback a number of times, only to fall back -- sometimes in truly puzzling fashion. This year, he has stumbled in a quarterfinal, a semi and a final, and remains title-less since winning the relatively minor Eastbourne title over a year ago.

The most glaring example of Djokovic's odd tendency to come apart just when things are coming together was his performance at the French Open, where he lost in the quarterfinals to No. 72-ranked Marco Cecchinato, a player who had never won a Grand Slam main draw singles match until that tournament. Dazed, angry, dejected, Djokovic had an uncharacteristically brief and combative meeting with the press after that loss, culminating with a startling assertion, "I don't know if I'm going to play the grass."

Presumably, he has no regrets that he did.

The human interest angle in an athlete's history makes it easy to focus on juicy psychological elements while overlooking more mundane ones. In Djokovic's case, that means issues like the right elbow injury he carried in late 2016 and into 2017, and the impact and effects of the minor surgery he underwent after the Australian Open this year. Those challenges and impairments harmed his game and confidence. They also forced him to make some adjustments in his equipment.

"My game overall was just disturbed," Djokovic said. "I didn't feel comfortable on the court for a long time. Indian Wells, Miami, most of the clay-court season. I just had to go back to basics and hit as many balls as I can on the practice courts, just get that feel."

The residue of that "feel" is the confidence that leads to the trophy presentation.