The last hurdle Novak Djokovic faced en route to a career Grand Slam and the supremely rare feat of four straight majors won — matched only by Rod Laver in the Open Era of men’s tennis — was his 2016 Roland Garros final against Andy Murray. However, the last hurdle — while appreciably difficult — was not necessarily the toughest one to surmount.
The most taxing and exasperating match for Djokovic at his historic 2016 French Open came against Roberto Bautista Agut. The skies were gray then. the conditions were heavy then. Bautista Agut played well then. On that day two years ago, Djokovic was pushed back on several occasions. His form came and went. He was often angry, sometimes confused, searching for a higher level of form.
How utterly fitting it is, then, that two years later, virtually all of the ingredients of that 2016 match returned to a 2018 third-round encounter — the rain and the gray, the heavy conditions, RBA’s determined play and flashes of excellence, Djokovic’s inconsistency and changing emotions. Everything which makes tennis so compelling, everything which makes the sport such a complete test of its practitioners, came to the forefront of another Djokovic-Bautista battle.
Djokovic was playing the conditions. He was playing Bautista. He was playing himself. Djokovic was playing against the recent past and all of its dislocations, interruptions and uncertainties. He was playing against the backdrop of not knowing for sure where his game stands, not knowing for sure how he would react to a prolonged four- or five-set match, the kind of match he hadn’t won in a long time, given his injury-based absence and his loss to Hyeon Chung at the Australian Open. Djokovic is an established champion — a legend of the highest order — so it always made sense to believe he would come back to the top of the sport.
The question was — and still is: How long will that process take?
It took two solid years for Rafael Nadal to go through that process in 2015 and 2016, before his authoritative return in 2017. Roger Federer went through an “annus horribilis” in 2013 and struggled with his body and mind in 2016 before getting back in a groove.
It is logical to expect iconic champions to figure things out; the time frame is the tricky and nebulous part of the equation.
Friday, Djokovic took a definite step forward in his process of rediscovery. He surely recalled the 2016 match against Bautista Agut and called forth a very familiar experience — in a different part of his career — to help him through a new stage in his journey.
Just when it seemed Djokovic was in control of this match in the second set, he lost control. Just when it seemed Djokovic’s weight of shot was about to overwhelm Bautista Agut, Djokovic would slip on the heavy clay on Court Suzanne Lenglen and lose his balance. He would hit an unsuccessful drop shot when standing well behind the baseline. The variations in quality were — and are — reflective of a player still searching for a higher gear, the gear Nole will need in the second week of Roland Garros. Those questions are still waiting to be answered.
Yet, first things first: Djokovic made the second week. He made it through a four-set test. He showed new levels of problem solving and stamina within the specific context of his 2018 season.
More questions do need to be answered, but Novak Djokovic has provided all the right answers thus far at Roland Garros. A champion knows how to ace a test, and Djokovic has come up aces on all the tests put in his way during the first week in Paris.
Image taken from zimbio.com