In the Eternal City, Novak Djokovic weathered a heavy onslaught from world No. 15 Juan Monaco before dispatching the fiery Argentine in three arduous sets, 4-6, 6-2, 6-3. Playing with winds gusting the red clay into swirls, Monaco's searing forehand drives had Djokovic smashing two racquet frames in frustration and looking like his clay-court preparation for Roland Garros might be cut short. But as is so often the case in a match in which Djokovic looks like he might be beaten, he rallied with determined stubbornness and stopped the 28-year-old short of the finish line.
Monaco, who has won all five of his ATP titles on clay, but has only twice in his 11-year career ventured past the second round at Roland Garros, bludgeoned Djokovic in the first set with dynamic forehands. The ultra-fit righty stood toe-to-toe with the world No. 1 and broke down his backhand with searing drives. Djokovic committed 14 unforced errors on the backhand side alone in the first set, and was the player doing most of the running. But Djokovic is a dangerous player even while down. He quickly righted his game, showed more resolve and grit in the longer rallies as his backhand began to find its marks, and he made the last two sets look routine against a very game opponent.
At times in the first set, Monaco looked like he was toying with Djokovic. The man from Tandil, also home to Juan Martin Del Potro and other Argentine tennis greats, hit a backhand drop shot, and when Djokovic motored into the net to retrieve it and send it back up the line, Monaco easily sizzled a passing shot by him cross-court. Like a middle-weight boxer always on his toes, Monaco kept coming at the Serb. An inside-out forehand led to an easy backhand put-away volley. Monaco broke Djokovic to go up 4-2 with a forehand drop shot that the fleet-footed top seed poked into the net with his backhand. The last game of the first set went to three deuces, but Monaco prevailed when a Djokovic slice backhand sailed long. Monaco had captured his first-ever set against Djokovic.
Monaco appeared to believe that victory was possible, no small task against Djokovic. He had lost all five previous matches to Djokovic, but none had been played on clay. He even led Djokovic by a break in set two. But seemingly out of nowhere, in the fifth game, Monaco was broken, and the floodgates opened. Djokovic proceeded to break Monaco twice more in the set and win 21 out of 26 points to close the second set with ease.
Monaco's belief and quick footwork returned in the third set, which he evened by holding at love for 3-3. His forehand was booming again, but Djokovic, one of the game's great deflectors of power, turned the tide on Monaco once more. At 3-4, with Monaco serving, the Serb refused to miss during a long rally on break point, and a Monaco backhand drifted wide into the alley. Djokovic quickly proceeded to hold serve, moving into the quarters, where he will play the winner of the Del Potro-Jo-Wilfried Tsonga match. Djokovic and del Potro have not played since del Potro beat Djokovic (his only match win against the Serb in five tries) via retirement in Davis Cup last September.
Dan Markowitz is writing the book, "Chasing the GOAT: Roger, Rafa, Nole & The Golden Slam Year of 2012."