In marathon triumph, a turnaround hope for Novak Djokovic | Tennis News - Hindustan Times
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In marathon triumph, a turnaround hope for Novak Djokovic

ByRutvick Mehta, Mumbai
Jun 02, 2024 11:24 PM IST

The defending French Open champion will hope the grit he showed to beat Musetti stays through his campaign.

For most of the third set and early in the fourth, down two sets to one to Lorenzo Musetti, Novak Djokovic looked a bit dazed. His shots oscillated between erratic and feeble, the body language edgy and flat. In his own assessment that also effectively sums up the world No.1’s rare trophy-less season so far, Djokovic, at one point, “didn’t know, really, what to do”.

Serbia's Novak Djokovic celebrates winning his third round match (AP)
Serbia's Novak Djokovic celebrates winning his third round match (AP)

Until something flipped, not so much in his level of play as in his will for a fight. A Musetti double fault gave Djokovic a little opening, which he pushed wider with a cracking forehand for a break in the fifth game. With clinched fists and steely eyes, Djokovic returned to his chair and came out to win 11 of the last 12 games. “I think I was a different player from that moment onwards,” he would say later.

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Djokovic would hope that also holds true for the rest of the tournament where he is defending champion though enduring a season of struggle. A 7-5, 6-7(6), 2-6, 6-3, 6-0 victory over the young Italian that started before 11pm Paris time on Saturday and ended past 3am on Sunday — the latest finish at Roland Garros — could well be the spark the 24-time Grand Slam champion is desperately seeking but has been evidently missing over the last few months.

His transformed body language at the end of it all suggested so. Through the deciding set in which he didn’t allow Musetti to win a game, the 37-year-old was seemingly gasping for breath on occasions. But there he was, flexing both his arms and ripping out a roar after a marathon turnaround that carries the potential to breathe life into his drab season.

More than a lack of silverware in 2024 — the first for the Serb since 2018 entering the French Open — it was the manner of defeats that have been notoriously unlike Djokovic. After his Australian Open semi-final surrender to Jannik Sinner, Djokovic suffered three-set losses in three of four ATP events. In each of those three matches at Indian Wells (lost to Lucas Nardi), Monte Carlo (Casper Ruud) and Geneva (Tomas Machac), Djokovic rallied to win the second set before being silenced in the decider.

Pushed to the wall, Djokovic is known for stepping up instead of folding up.

The Serb stared at a similar slippery situation trailing two sets to one against Musetti, who threw most things back at Djokovic from the baseline in kind and at times with greater might. But this is where Grand Slam tennis stands out. And this is where champions like Djokovic set themselves apart, no matter the form and frailties elsewhere on the tour.

Djokovic went from being 7-5, 4-1 up to having a set point in the second set tiebreaker to blowing the second and third sets where he at times looked resigned. Yet once he got that break at 2-2 in the fourth set courtesy a loose service game by Musetti, Djokovic ran him ragged while tightening up his own game (his unforced error count dropped from 15 and 8 in sets 2 and 3 to 7 and 2 in sets 4 and 5).

Make no mistake, this was still nowhere near Djokovic at his best. He had fewer winners (44 to 53) and higher unforced errors (42 to 34) than his single-handed backhand opponent, who also took Djokovic to five sets in the 2021 French Open. But, in his 39th five-set career win out of 50, there were shades of the Djokovic’s doggedness that appeared to have dwindled this season.

“This was perhaps the best match I’ve ever played here, the most exciting,” Djokovic said on court in French.

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