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Is Djokovic back on track to defend his French Open title?



Is Djokovic back on track to defend his French Open title?

PARIS — IT WAS WELL previous 3 within the morning Sunday when Novak Djokovic lastly raised his arms in triumph, because the devoted followers within the stands at Court docket Philippe-Chatrier, many huddled in blankets, rose to their toes.

It had been 5 grueling units and practically 4½ hours of battling — and drop pictures and relentless working. However the world No. 1 had lastly gotten previous Lorenzo Musetti 7-5, 6-7(6), 2-6, 6-3, 6-0 to advance to the fourth spherical on the French Open. It marked the most recent end in historical past for a match on the event, and the fatigue and reduction was evident on Djokovic’s face as he addressed the gang moments later.

“That was maybe the perfect match I ever performed right here,” Djokovic, 37, mentioned in French. “Probably the most thrilling. Thanks a lot. And now, who’s going to sleep? It is inconceivable to sleep now with all this adrenaline. If you are going to have fun, I am coming too.”

It might sound shocking that Djokovic — a person tied for probably the most main title victories in tennis historical past with 24, and the defending champion at Roland Garros — could be so emotional about merely reaching the second week. However this season has been stuffed with disappointments and early exits. When Djokovic fell behind to Musetti, 22, he had been staring down his worst consequence at a significant for the reason that Australian Open in 2017 and the lack of his No. 1 rating. It will have been one more stunning consequence, in a yr stuffed with them.

In these early hours Sunday morning, Djokovic rediscovered a few of his signature magic — and probably received his season again on observe.

“Everybody has seen Djokovic’s struggles, and now gamers imagine they’ve an opportunity to beat him, but when he begins to seek out the greatness that has made him who he’s, that s— is out the window,” Brad Gilbert, Coco Gauff’s coach and former coach of Andre Agassi and Andy Roddick, informed ESPN. “If the greatness of ‘Joker’ is there, it would not matter what the opposite man is doing, beating him goes to be extraordinarily tough.”

LAST SEASON, DJOKOVIC received three main titles and tied the general Grand Slam document. In November, after advancing to the title match on the ATP Finals, he was requested how he would have the ability to keep motivated within the new season.

“Effectively, you possibly can win 4 Slams and Olympic gold,” Djokovic mentioned with a smile, however in full seriousness. “I imply, I’ve at all times the very best ambitions and targets. That is not going to be completely different for the subsequent yr, that is for certain. The drive that I’ve remains to be there.”

However Djokovic’s dream for all 4 main titles ended early. He misplaced within the semifinals on the Australian Open in January to eventual champion Jannik Sinner, and since then he hasn’t been in a position to flip his season round. Within the 4 tournaments he performed after, he failed to succeed in a remaining and has skilled some really baffling losses to gamers effectively outdoors the highest 20, reminiscent of Luca Nardi within the spherical of 32 at Indian Wells and Tomas Machac within the semifinals at Geneva final week.

He was injured when a water bottle dropped onto his head on the Italian Open, and he later mentioned the nausea, dizziness and complications brought on him made him really feel like a “completely different participant” on the court docket. He misplaced to Alejandro Tabilo two days after the incident.

He arrived in Paris having performed at Geneva — a rarity for him in the course of the week earlier than a significant — and clearly sad with how the season had fared. He mentioned he had “low expectations and excessive hopes” for the French Open however was optimistic he might flip issues round in the course of the fortnight.

“I’ve been saying for fairly some time that when it comes to clay I need to peak right here in Paris, in Roland Garros,” Djokovic mentioned earlier than play received underway. “Final yr I had an incredible yr, and significantly right here in Roland Garros, and hopefully I can, yeah, have an excellent event.

“In fact it does have an effect on me, you realize, the 5 months that I had up to now within the yr that have not been nice when it comes to my tennis. That is why I’ve a sort of an method that’s centered each day, extra making an attempt to construct the shape and momentum in order that I can have a greater probability to succeed in additional within the event.”

And Djokovic has seemingly gotten higher in every match he is performed on the French Open. He struggled at instances together with his motion in his 6-4, 7-6 (3), 6-4 opening-round victory over Pierre-Hugues Herbert, a wild card ranked No. 142 on the planet, and he even took what seemed to be a tough fall by the online within the third set.

Djokovic appeared extra assured, and was transferring extra freely, in his extra easy second-round victory over Roberto Carballes Baena 6-4, 6-1, 6-2.

Towards the athletic and fearless Musetti, Djokovic wanted to dig deep and discover his manner again, after blowing a 4-1 lead and set level on serve within the second set after which falling right into a 2-1 deficit. However one thing occurred within the fourth set at 2-all and he seized management — after which by no means appeared again.

“It did not really feel nice taking part in him that third set [and] at starting of the fourth,” Djokovic mentioned after the match. “The group undoubtedly received me going. I actually wanted that push, I actually wanted that power. And a pair of-all within the fourth, they begin chanting my title and I simply felt an excellent new wave of willpower and power. And I believe I used to be a unique participant from that second onwards. I believe from that second I in all probability misplaced just one recreation the remainder of the match.”

THE LOSS TO SINNER on the Australian Open was the primary signal Djokovic’s season wasn’t going to plan. However it was the loss to Nardi at Indian Wells that really made his opponents take discover — and alter their method to matches in opposition to him.

After Casper Ruud defeated Djokovic — for the primary time in six tries — within the semifinals in Monte Carlo in April, he mentioned he had entered the match with a unique mentality than up to now.

“I believe what actually motivated me and helped me a bit at the moment was perhaps that I thought of, you realize, he misplaced a match in Indian Wells to Luca Nardi, and he confirmed there that he is additionally susceptible typically,” Ruud mentioned after their match. “Not many instances in a yr, however a couple of days right here and there he is doable to beat … If you happen to see that many or different gamers have crushed him earlier than, you imagine a bit extra in your self additionally.”

Tabilo had additionally watched Djokovic’s loss to Nardi and he too was shocked, but additionally inspired by the consequence. He was nervous as he ready for his or her spherical of 32 assembly in Rome, but additionally extra optimistic than he would have been beforehand.

“It provides you hope,” Tabilo informed ESPN this week. “It actually does assist additionally figuring out that him coming on this yr, he isn’t at his finest kind. And that additionally not solely provides you a little bit little bit of confidence, however it provides you a little bit bit extra hope which you could battle a little bit bit extra with him.”

Gilbert mentioned he believes gamers of Djokovic’s caliber have an aura round them, and most gamers do not suppose they’ve any probability of competing with them. However when one is ready to do it, it could change every little thing.

“Once you’re somebody like Talibo and also you’re taking part in ‘Regular Djokovic,’ it is like being down 3-0 if you’re strolling to the court docket. That is the fairness {that a} participant like Djokovic has and has constructed for himself together with his outcomes,” Gilbert mentioned. “However then, if you see Djokovic on TV and he is dropping [the matches he has], you suppose, ‘Oh geez, I’ve by no means seen this occur, perhaps it should occur once more.’ These sort of losses can change another person’s self-belief and take away that benefit.”

Regardless of the lopsided 6-2, 6-3 rating, Tabilo nonetheless did not imagine he would pull off the victory till the ultimate factors of the match.

“I received the primary set fairly comfortably and I used to be like, ‘All proper, this cannot be this like this, he has to bounce again at a while,'” Tabilo mentioned. “Truthfully, I used to be even prepared simply to go for a 3rd set already. I imply one thing has to occur, it is Novak Djokovic. He can flip it round every time.”

DJOKOVIC IS ONE main title away from surpassing Margaret Court docket for probably the most ever, and he already holds probably the most within the Open period and most amongst males. He has by no means publicly complained in regards to the stress that comes with chasing historical past, however others have spoken in regards to the toll such expectations can take. Serena Williams, the 23-time main champion, spoke brazenly about it.

“I might be mendacity if I mentioned I did not need that document,” Williams wrote within the Vogue essay saying her retirement in 2022. “Clearly I do … Perhaps I thought of it an excessive amount of, and that did not assist.”

Djokovic did admit this week that he has struggled with staying motivated outdoors the massive occasions just like the Grand Slams and the Olympics, and he was involved it will grow to be a bigger difficulty going ahead.

“I do know the second goes to reach eventually the place I am simply going to have off weeks,” Djokovic mentioned after his second-round match. “The place I am struggling to push myself or ship what must be delivered on the court docket … I am centered just about solely on Grand Slams and Olympics this yr, and taking part in for my nation, actually. That is one thing that basically drives me probably the most.”

There seemed to be no such difficulty late within the match Sunday, no scarcity of drive as he ran down each ball Musetti hit his manner. Now Djokovic not solely stays in rivalry to defend his Roland Garros crown, however has labored his manner again atop the favorites listing.

However successful his fourth French Open title will not be simple.

On Monday, Djokovic will face Francisco Cerundolo, the No. 23 seed who’s again within the fourth spherical for the second consecutive yr. They’ve by no means performed earlier than, however Cerundolo could have undoubtedly studied what gamers like Tabilo and Nardi did of their matches in an effort to pull off the upset.

If Djokovic advances to the quarterfinals, he’ll face Ruud, a two-time finalist at Roland Garros, or Taylor Fritz, who has dubbed himself “Claylor” as a result of his success on the floor this season. Daniil Medvedev, Holger Rune and Alexander Zverev are doable semifinal opponents. Sinner, the No. 2 seed, and Carlos Alcaraz, the No. 3 seed, are on the other facet of the draw and will await within the remaining if Djokovic reaches it.

With Rafael Nadal, the 14-time French Open champion, eradicated within the first spherical in what is anticipated to be his remaining look on the event, Djokovic is the one males’s champion remaining. With Djokovic’s struggles within the months main in, many believed this event may very well be the clearest sign of a altering of the guard in males’s tennis. However after Sunday, it seems Djokovic is not able to concede simply but. And perhaps, simply perhaps, the win over Musetti marked the turning level of his yr that he is been so desperately looking for.

“Clearly by his requirements, this season has been a shocking one,” Gilbert mentioned. “However he got here to Wimbledon in 2018 having not received a significant in over two years and [following] elbow accidents [and having undergone surgery] after which he received it. He might flip it round right here once more and win it. That is the great thing about tennis and that is a part of his greatness.”

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