The way Novak Djokovic played today against Juan Monaco did not bode well for his future at this picturesque seaside tournament. On the other hand, given how comprehensively his fellow elites (No. 2 seed Andy Murray and No. 4 seed Tomas Berdych) crashed and burned earlier in the day (they won a total of zero sets and just nine games), mere survival seemed good enough. And survive Djokovic did, winning 4-6, 6-2, 6-2.
Djokovic appeared to be slightly hobbled at the outset, and he was broken in the very first game. But give Monaco credit here: He’s about the last guy you want to see across the net when you have a tender ankle—a tender whatever, for that matter—because he runs like a jackrabbit and seems to have boundless energy. He used that energy well, holding onto the first service break until the proverbial crunch time, when he served for a 5-3 lead.
Monaco served a fairly solid game, and secured a hold point with a beautifully played half-volley that barely crossed the net and fell parallel to it—on Djokovic’s side. But then he made a careless backhand error off the next service return, and Djokovic suddenly popped to life. The Serb bludgeoned a cross-court forehand winner to reach break point, and Monaco caved, dishing up an unforced forehand error to hand back the break.
However, Monaco bounced right back from Djokovic’s act of self-assertion with a little statement of his own. He won the first two points in the next game, but Djokovic got to 30-all. From there, though, Djokovic made an inexplicable backhand error off a Monaco service return and belted an inside-out forehand wide by mile to be broken. Monaco took full advantage of the opportunity and served out the set with no trouble.
Like all great champions, though, Djokovic can be as slippery to grasp as an eel, ankle or no ankle. And that’s doubly relevant when it comes to a returner of his caliber paired with a so-so server like Monaco. The No. 14 seed has had a terrible year so far, one of the major reasons being his assailable serve. With no free points to count on, the issue became whether Djokovic would be able to settle in and grind out the win despite being down a set.
That was the decision Djokovic took, and it became obvious when he held and quickly broke Monaco to start the second set. But Monaco wouldn’t go away quite so easily, and he took advantage of a lull in Djokovic’s attention to snatch a service break in the fifth game, putting the match back on serve at 3-2.
This time, it was Djokovic who broke right back to turn the set around. Monaco won just one point in the sixth game, losing it with the one-two punch of a shanked forehand and backhand error. Djokovic then played his best—by far—game of the match to that point, securing the 5-2 hold with a purring drop shot. A dispirited Monaco failed to hold and that ended the set.
Up above, I described that heavenly touch drop-volley Monaco hit in the first set. At the start of the third, a similar shot told a very different tale—and foretold the end for Monaco. After Djokovic held to open, Monaco, perhaps feeling the walls closing in on him, fell behind 15-40. He saved one break point with a service winner, but during the next point advanced to the net only to see Djokovic rifle a backhand pass to his shoetops. This time, the half-volley caromed off the frame and flew wildly toward the crowd. Two-love, Djokovic.
Djokovic consolidated that critical break with a strong hold. But as this match started as a sloppy affair it only seemed fair that it end that way. After building a 5-1 third-set lead, Djokovic donated a love service game to Monaco’s cause before he put his opponent away with a final break.
Stat of the match: While Djokovic’s 45 unforced errors are eye-catching, his dismal 38 percent success rate with his second serve was nothing short of alarming.