"Six more matches to go before Djokovic matches Laver," John McEnroe intoned on Tennis Channel after Novak Djokovic dispatched of Potito Starace in straight sets in the first round of the French Open, 7-6 (3), 6-3, 6-1. McEnroe was referring to holding all four Grand Slam titles, a feat Laver accomplished for the second time (in a calendar year, in his case) in 1969. But although Djokovic won his first-round match in straights for the sixth straight Slam, he looked anything but dominant through the first set-and-a-half against 30-year-old Starace, whose ranking has dropped to No. 97.
Breaking out his new Uniqlo clothing, Djokovic came out firing against Starace, but soon found the Italian very much up for the challenge. Employing an effective inside-out forehand that had Djokovic scrambling into his backhand corner, followed by delicate drop shots, Starace forced a first-set tiebreaker and even held a mini-break lead after the No. 1's first forehand sailed long. Djokovic had trouble with his forehand wing, particularly in the first set, where committed 11 of his 19 unforced errors for the match. Starace had just 10 unforced errors in the first set.
But the Djokovic first serve was his get-out-of-jail card for the entire match; he struck six aces on the clay and won 82 percent of his first-serve points. He quickly took the seven out of the next nine points in the tiebreaker to bag the first set.
Starace, who walks around with a weary, lethargic air, might've been expected to go away quickly in the next set, but he won a marathon game on serve to go up 2-1. The veteran was digging out balls hit deep and wide to his forehand with a slice squash shot, and running the court with great effort. Often, he used a ploy of Djokovic's—hitting a soft dropper that, even when reached, gave the drop-shotter an advantageous short-court reply. Djokovic won only 16 out of 25 forays to the net in the match.
But the top seed's greatest asset besides his seamless game is his ability to wear down opponents and rarely give them an opening to climb back into a match. Djokovic broke Starace on two of his next three service games and was soon rolling with a two-set lead. In the last set, Djokovic finally had Starace subdued, and he finished the match with a second serve ace. Next up for the Serb is 25-year-old, No. 99th-ranked Slovakian Blaz Kavcic, with either the No. 114th-ranked Michael Berrer or the No. 282nd-ranked Nicolas Devilder to follow. Good day, and good early draw.