Ever since he finished off Rafael Nadal in the Australian Open final, Novak Djokovic knew that the summit of his 2019 tennis season, the zenith of his year, would emerge in Paris in June for the French Open.
No one needs an explanation of this. Everyone in tennis understood — and understands — what is at stake at Roland Garros. If Novak Djokovic wins there, and ESPECIALLY if he beats Rafael Nadal in the final to lift that trophy, he becomes the unquestioned Tennis God of this soon-to-end decade, the 2010s. He would take an enormous upward step in the tennis pantheon. Clay became Djokvoic’s focus as soon as championship point was won against Rafa in Melbourne.
Indian Wells and Miami weren’t fun, and Monte Carlo was a disappointment, but all three of those tournaments are far removed from the heart of the clay season, this five-week period encompassing Madrid, Rome, and Paris. This is the height of the clay-court year in tennis. This is the time the knives get sharpened before Rolly G.
All eyes were therefore fastened to the blockbuster semifinal between Djokovic and Dominic Thiem in Madrid. They have met multiple times at Roland Garros. They have both made Roland Garros finals. Thiem has made the semis or better in three straight years. Djokovic had made three straight finals and four in five years before injuries caught up to him in 2017 and his early-season period of discovery limited his ceiling in 2018. Rafael Nadal is the ultimate gold standard on clay, but Djokovic is the clear No. 2, and Thiem the almost-as-clear No. 3, ahead of an inconsistent Alexander Zverev. The attractiveness of the matchup created an important — though not life-or-death — moment in the 2019 ATP clay saga.
The question was simple, even if the answer was hard to anticipate, given Djokovic’s lack of a match on Friday due to Marin Cilic’s withdrawal: Would Djokovic’s game snap into place, at least in the important stages of this match, against an elite clay-court player?
After Thiem broke for a 3-1 lead in the first set, Djokovic answered that question in the affirmative.
After Thiem forced a first-set tiebreaker, Djokovic answered that question in the affirmative.
After Thiem broke for 4-2 in the second set, Djokovic answered that question in the affirmative.
After Djokovic faltered in his 6-5 service game in the second set, he regrouped and answered that question in the affirmative.
Djokovic was pushed back at times by Thiem’s weight of shot, but he soared in the first-set breaker with outrageously great tennis. At the end of the second set, he was clearly the mentally fresher player. Thiem looked punched out, like a man who had thrown too many punches over two days of high-tension tennis against Roger Federer and then Djokovic.
This wasn’t a complete masterclass from Nole, but in all the important moments of the match, he didn’t make very many mistakes, the 6-5 game in the second set being the main exception.
There is obviously still room for improvement before Roland Garros. Djokovic can play better.
The main point to emphasize: He has already begun to play better after the doldrums of March and April. He still has a few weeks to go before Paris, and he can play his way into an even more polished level of performance in the first week of Rolly G.
Are there any questions left regarding Djokovic’s preparedness for Roland Garros? Not any significant ones. Djokovic has hushed the doubts anyone might have harbored about his game.
That’s why he’s Novak Djokovic and you’re not.