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Building blocks on red brick

Novak Djokovic knows how to build back his game after rust and sluggishness in Monte Carlo. He has suffered a number of early-round defeats at this tournament, placed in an odd spot on the calendar and vulnerable to the seaside winds which have never treated Djokovic’s game kindly. Djokovic regularly ramps up his game by the time Rome arrives. He gets his house in order before Roland Garros each year. There is no immediate cause for concern in the Djokovic camp other than the need to accumulate matches in a year dominated by bizarre and unfortunate political skirmishes created by tennis authorities.

Djokovic was the story heading into Monte Carlo, given his absence from the tour in the Indian Wells-Miami Sunshine Swing. Djokovic’s clay season is a central story of the 2022 tennis year, primarily because Rafael Nadal has 21 majors, but also because Djokovic is the reigning French Open champion. The last time Djokovic tried to defend a Roland Garros championship, he was injured in 2017. This time, Djokovic is physically fresh, but his interrupted schedule is his main concern.

Had Djokovic been able to win his first Monte Carlo match, he would have gained the ability to play his way into form during the week. We would certainly be emphasizing that story had it unfolded.

Alejandro Davidovich Fokina didn’t allow it to happen.

Was this match primarily a product of Djokovic’s rust? Yes … but ADF still had to take advantage of the circumstances presented to him. When he let the second set slip away after being up 3-0, and then being two points away at 6-5, and then being up 4-2 in the tiebreaker, it would have been easy for him to fold the tent.

There were periods in this match — a dizzying, twisting affair which lasted almost three hours — in which ADF seemed to want nothing to do with the pressure and the tension. Bailout shots and ill-advised dives, part of his package of brilliant and bizarre tendencies, gave Djokovic several lifelines. Yet, Djokovic kept feeding ADF timely errors, including a self-break at the start of the third set. Davidovich Fokina stopped spraying the ball in the third set, locking in and playing percentage tennis when he saw the finish line at 4-1. He closed the match smoothly after a day largely spent on a high wire.

Djokovic’s pursuit of Roland Garros, and a repeat win over Rafael Nadal in Paris, will be the huge story of late May and early June. For now, though, let’s see what Davidovich Fokina can build on red brick. The 22-year-old now has an achievement which can build confidence and belief, but that means little if it doesn’t translate into better habits and improved responses.

This young career can turn the corner, but it’s up to Davidovich Fokina to make it happen.

Djokovic is a proven builder. ADF has to prove he is capable of building something special in his own right.

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