Mental fatigue downs Djokovic in Wimbledon loss

Novak Djokovic had high expectations after reaching his first final on grass last week in Queen's. AP Photo/Anja Niedringhaus

WIMBLEDON, England -- Three and a half years ago, a 17-year-old Serbian played his first Grand Slam singles match in Australia.

Novak Djokovic, ranked No. 188 in the world, won all of three games and a total of 34 points against his idol, Marat Safin. This, of course, was to be expected. Djokovic, humiliated, went back to the practice courts. Safin went on to win his second Grand Slam title.

Tennis has this quirky (and delightful) habit of returning favors, and on Wednesday, Djokovic seemed poised to even the score at the All England Club.

Djokovic, a Grand Slam champion himself after winning in Melbourne earlier this year, is ranked No. 3 -- and rising? To this point in the season, he consistently has played better than No. 1 Roger Federer and No. 2 Rafael Nadal. Safin, 28, has seen his ranking slide to No. 75 and came into the tournament with a 10-13 record. When the Russian got his first look at the draw, he saw Djokovic's name and never looked past it -- because he didn't expect to win.

But on Centre Court, there was no payback, no soaring story arc of redemption. Djokovic, playing again like the unabashed, adoring junior, got destroyed again. Safin won their second-round match 6-4, 7-6 (3), 6-2. It was the biggest upset here so far, and it left Djokovic waxing nostalgic afterward.

"When I was a junior, I looked at him as one of the greatest players, one of the idols," Djokovic said. "I admired the way he plays. I used to practice with him because we had then, and we still have, the same manager.

"I have a lot of respect for him. Maybe that played a role today in the match."

Safin, asked about Djokovic's perhaps undue reverence, responded, "That's good to know. Thank you.

"I hope so. I'm still older than him. I hope it will stay the same way and he'll have the same respect to me as he had three years ago.

"It works for me."

Both players described Safin's play as "solid" and generally agreed that Djokovic's laconic, listless performance was the difference. Djokovic lost six of the first seven points in the second-set tiebreaker and weakly double-faulted on the last two points of the match.

He had 10 double faults for the match.

"Which is unusual," Djokovic said. "It was certainly a bad day for me. I didn't do anything I was supposed to do. I was just not finding my momentum."

John McEnroe, who worked the match for the BBC, thought Djokovic looked tired.

"He's played too much," McEnroe said. "If he's going to challenge for No. 1, he's got to manage his schedule better. He looked a little spent out there.

"Him being a favorite, along with Federer and Nadal, the weight seemed to really get to him."

Djokovic didn't exactly disagree.

"Tired mentally, probably I'd say yes," he said. "It's been a long season, even though it's only halfway through. But physically I wasn't tired."

Djokovic has now played 51 matches in this year's first six months, third-most on the ATP Tour behind Rafael Nadal and Nikolay Davydenko.

Ana Ivanovic, who won her first career Grand Slam earlier this month in Paris, also showed signs of mental fatigue. The No. 1-seeded player did her best to lose to Nathalie Dechy but rallied to win her second-round match 6-7 (2), 7-6 (3), 10-8.

Ivanovic saved two match points in the second set, and one of them was saved by a net cord. She kissed the net on the very spot her forehand clipped the tape when the match ended three hours and 24 minutes after it began.

"I felt like time stopped for a moment," Ivanovic said. "Then the ball hit the net and it was in the air for a couple of seconds. It was moving away, so I thought maybe it will go out. Just so many thoughts at the same moment.

"I just thought the match would be over. After that point, I felt like it was a new match for me and I had a new opportunity."

Safin, too, is feeling that way.

He has suffered through a slow, miserable descent. After winning that Australian Open, he has seen his year-end ranking fall from No. 13 in 2005 to No. 26 in 2006 to No. 56 a year ago, after he failed to reach an ATP final for the first time in a decade.

Injuries and waning motivation left him wondering whether it was time to retire. But at the end of last year he started working hard again, practicing better, going to the gym.

"The results are not coming, the results are not coming," Safin said. "I started to get a little desperate, because I've been working hard week after week. I'm surprisingly happy that finally it came."

This is his 13th tournament of the year and only the third time he has put together back-to-back wins. Maybe part of his recent motivation comes from seeing his sister Dinara reach the final at Roland Garros.

When was the last time he played this well?

"Long time ago," Safin said. "I don't even remember. I didn't play great for a long time.

"I don't remember how does it feel."

Safin had a ticket for an 8:30 p.m. flight from London to Moscow, but he won't be needing it now.

"I was almost there," he said. "There is a flight every day. Everything is under control."

Greg Garber is a senior writer for ESPN.com.