PARIS—New day, new sun, new crowd: That was all it took to bring out the old Novak Djokovic. This was the one we’ve gotten used to seeing in 2011, the man with all the answers, the guy with the meticulous footwork and technique, who can make a sliding get on your best shot one second, then gun a better one past you the next. Most of all, it was the Novak Djokovic who can take a moment of seeming vulnerability and turn it into one that decisively swings the match in his favor.
It was a different Djokovic, and a very different scene on Lenglen, than what we saw last night. There was an edge to both the player and the proceedings yesterday. The match had been moved, under ominously cloudy skies, from Chatrier to Lenglen, and hundreds of fans from the larger stadium, who had bought the more expensive tickets, staged a noisy near-riot on the Roland Garros grounds as Djokovic and del Potro played their opening set. Djokovic said it had been tough waiting to start all day, and that he hadn’t been able to see the ball very well. It showed: He made three easy errors and double-faulted to be broken in the second set. Even in the first, which he won, he had given del Potro chances to get back in it, but the big man had failed to capitalize.
That scenario played out today as well. Del Potro, who came out hitting the ball with the same powerful accuracy that he finished the previous evening, held two break points at 2-2. But for a player riding the wave of confidence that Djokovic has been riding, danger can quickly be transformed into opportunity. He came back in that game, won a long side-to-side rally to reach break point, and reacted with a leap and a fist-pump. The good feeling that has become so familiar since the Davis Cup final last December was back yet again.
That was the turning point, Djokovic said afterward. “At 2-2 and 3-2. After that I felt like I got into the right momentum of the match.”
A subdued del Potro knew it, too, and he knew what it meant not to convert those break points. “If you don’t take your chance,” against Djokovic, he said, “you lose.”
It’s as simple as that these days. There was something both Federer-esque and Nadal-esque in the way Djokovic played the rest of the way. Federer-esque in the sense that, once he had achieved just a tiny bit of separation from his opponent, all the stored-up confidence from his previous wins seemed to flow through his body and his game. At this point he doesn’t need anything more than a break to feel like he’s in control again, that he “has the right momentum.” Winning is a habit by now, an involuntary reaction.
If Djokovic was Federer-like in his self-assurance, it was his forehand that reminded me of Nadal. Djokovic, despite his semi-Western grip and topspin whip, has always played a flatter game than Nadal. But in this match he was able to do what Rafa has always done: That is, basically, hit the ball as hard as he wants, with very little risk, because of the topspin he’s generating. He still plays flatter than Rafa and doesn’t put as much air under the ball, but today he added a layer of safety to the stroke. By the fourth set, Djokovic was hauling off, round-house, full-body style, and pushing del Potro around, while still appearing to play high percentage tennis.
Djokovic says he shouldn't be tired for Sunday’s match aganst Richard Gasquet, because the rallies with del Potro were fairly short. But he also said that Gasquet is playing some of the best tennis of his career. As for Del Potro, he had his moments, but in the end Djokovic’s game was so comprehensively superior that the Argentine was at a loss to describe exactly how he had been beaten. “I don’t have any words,” he said afterward.
The match ended as a bit of an anti-climax, which isn’t a total surprise. Djokovic has always handled del Potro, and fed off of his power. He can stand toe to toe with the big man while at the same time running circles around him.
What I liked best about the contest wasn’t the tennis itself. It was the spirit in which it was played. This has been a gentleman’s era in the men’s game—from Roger to Rafa to Nole and now to del Potro, with each successive great player there has been a corresponding uptick in on-court etiquette and respect for opponents. There was a striking contrast last night between the riled up fans, inside and outside of Lenglen, and the very palpable and easygoing regard that the players held for each other.
Marks were inspected on request and rubbed out without hesitation. When del Potro briefly came up limping on a bad ankle, Djokovic immediately began walking toward the net to see how he was. Even better was the way they acknowledged each other’s good shots. Lately, I’d noticed that the pros very rarely applaud their opponents unless they’re comfortably ahead in the score. I’d almost begun to think that it was an iron law of the sport. Then, last night, when he was down a break in the second, Djokovic watched a del Potro forehand skid past him for a winner and put his hand to his strings. Today it was del Potro’s turn. Down two sets to one and losing altitude quickly, he nevertheless took the time to do the same for an especially brilliant Djokovic passing shot.
Today Djokovic, with his 42nd straight win, tied John McEnroe for third on the all-time ATP winning-streak list. Del Potro, graciously, said that he was happy to be part of history, while Djokovic professed his admiration for McEnroe, one of the game’s “most interesting characters.” One of the interesting things about McEnroe was that, despite his overt disrespect for many of his colleagues, he felt that the players could do a better job of calling the lines themselves. That had always seemed like a ridiculous idea to me. Until today. It’s a measure of the sporting spirit of men’s tennis at the moment that you had the feeling that Djokovic and del Potro could easily and happily have officiated this match themselves.