The rule on the Grandstand court here at the Western & Southern Open is that seat-back chairs are reserved, and bleacher seats – maybe 80 percent of the seating – is first come, first served. The bleachers were full and many spectators were standing at the back when Novak Djokovic took the court for a round-of-32 match against Adrian Mannarino. It was a pro-Djokovic crowd, too: Early points won by Mannarino got only a faint smattering of applause. The first few games were very physical, and the 13-time Grand Slam champion came out on the wrong end of several lung-busting rallies.
Mannarino is very quick, varies spins and pace, and can hit flat and deep with the best of them. He kept the pressure up for the first half hour and converted a break point with a sweet down-the-line backhand that wrongfooted his opponent. At 5-4, serving for the set, I saw that Mannarino had changed from a black shirt to a light grey version. The Man In Black is one of our culture’s great archetypes: the Man In Light Grey, not so much…
Early in the second set, Djokovic visibly began to mount a push, hitting closer to the lines and moving up the court when possible. He broke to go 2-0 up, but then surrendered the lead in the next game. However, momentum had changed; Mannarino’s footwork was noticeably less assured than in the early stages of the match, and Djokovic had gained the upper hand in extended rallies. A third break in succession restored his advantage, and the next four games went with serve. It looked like Novak was fully in charge, but I saw him bend heavily over his racquet a couple of times as he called for his towel after rallies. He also grasped at his stomach or abdomen at one point. At the 5-2 changeover Djokovic called for a doctor, who visited courtside.
Whatever the doctor passed over – advice or some Tums – worked wonders. Djokovic won the next six games against a man who had become a white-shirted opponent and had symbolically been drained of power. Novak did have one break point to fend off in his final service game, which he managed with a well-placed first serve. Two points later, we were done.
Not a bad effort for a fellow with tummy troubles.
It had been a very physical match, and Mannarino lamented afterward that he hadn’t been able to sustain his level over three sets, but that was a big part of the reason for the gap between the players.
In press, Novak said he had a bad night on Tuesday before this Wednesday match, but had been able to play through it with the doctor’s help. He told us that having the challenge of adding Cincinnati to complete the Masters set was motivating rather than pressure. He said that life was a journey, and that Daniel Nestor’s career might have been more complete had they played doubles together. The smiles are back, noted one of the journalists: Djokovic concurred, but he noted that he would have to play even better in upcoming matches against higher-seeded players.
The journey continues.