Taking the court at just before 8 p.m. Paris time, Novak Djokovic knew he had to win in around 90 minutes or risk having to return tomorrow. In the end, it took an hour and 44 minutes, but the world No. 1 was magnificent in beating the darkness and qualifier Nicholas Devilder, 6-1, 6-2, 6-2.
Racing the gathering gloom and facing a crowd determined to be entertained, Djokovic was at his most ruthless. He also had to contend with Devilder, of course, who at 32 is enjoying his best-ever run at Roland Garros.
The Frenchman opened the match with a scorching forehand winner down the line. It took Djokovic nine minutes to hold his opening service game, but once he did, the Serb roared into high gear, punishing Devilder’s serve with his own fearsome returns to break to 15. By the time Djokovic led 5-0, it was clear that he was in no humor to waste any time, dictating every rally from inside the baseline and serving out the set in 30 minutes with his fourth ace.
Devilder’s career-high ranking, No. 60, came back in 2008, the only other year he won a main-draw match at Roland Garros (before losing to Rafael Nadal). Now No. 286, the gulf in class between him and his opponent today was constantly in evidence. Devilder had his moments—notably a lovely down-the-line forehand winner to get back on serve for 1-1 early in the second set—but the extravagant gestures with which he celebrated suggested clearly that he was out there to enjoy the experience more than anything.
Djokovic, quick to pick up on his opponent’s tendency to play deep and retrieve from behind the baseline, played incisively and fast, injecting pace off both wings to leave Devilder floundering. He also approached the net 28 times, putting away volley after volley, including a spectacular down-the-line lob volley after pulling Devilder into the net.
In the third set, Djokovic raced to a 4-1 lead before framing a number of forehands, putting himself under pressure on his serve—either as a result of the growing darkness or his own eagerness to get the match done. Devilder had two break points that would surely have ensured that the match continued tomorrow, but Djokovic saved both with aggressive play. Shortly afterwards, the match ended the way it began, with a slapped forehand winner down the line on the run; this time it came off the racquet of the world No. 1 to seal victory. It was his 34th winner for the match.
Devilder’s loss, following that of Fernando Verdasco earlier in the day, leaves just one left-hander in the men’s draw—Nadal. If Djokovic can bring the same focus, aggression, and class that he produced under pressure tonight to his next matches, he gives himself an excellent chance to meet the lone lefty and six-time champion in 10 days’ time.