There are no warm-ups, unfortunately, to the French Open warm-ups. The ATP’s best players have to jump right into the Masters 1000 pool and hope they swim rather than sink. That’s usually fine for Rafael Nadal; he’s a fish in native water when he’s back on red dirt. But for the rest of the guys there can be an adjustment period. Yesterday it took No. 5 seed Juan Martin del Potro the better part of two sets to make that adjustment against Alexandr Dolgopolov. Today it was top seed Novak Djokovic’s turn to take the clay plunge, against Mikhail Youzhny.
Djokovic is technically on native ground in his adopted hometown of Monte Carlo, but this was his first match on dirt since Serbia played Belgium in Davis Cup in February. It was also the first test for the right ankle that he had turned in his last Davis Cup match, against the U.S. two weeks ago. The combination had Djokovic tied up in knots to start. Tentative, sluggish, error-prone, whatever you want to call it, he went down two early breaks to Youzhny; his experiment on his ankle looked like it was going to be a quick and painful one. That might not have been as surprising as it seemed at first. While they hadn’t played since 2010, Djokovic came in with just a 4-3 head-to-head edge over the Russian.
Once the first set was all but lost, Djokovic settled down. So much so that he won 14 straight points at one stage; the errors vanished as quickly as they had appeared. While it wasn’t enough to salvage the opening set—Youzhny served it out 6-4—the match had clearly taken a turn in Djokovic’s direction.
Up 2-1 in the second, Djokovic began a methodical march to what seemed sure to be routine wins in the final two sets. From 2-1 in the second set to 3-1 in the third, Djokovic was too fast, too consistent, too solid for his opponent. In rally after rally, Youzhny’s strokes, particularly his backhand, broke down before Djokovic’s. Youzhny would finish with 20 winners against 49 unforced errors.
But Youzhny wasn’t quite finished. Down 1-3, 30-30 in the third, seemingly as good as toast, he hit a service winner and let out a surprising yell. Did he really think he was still in this? The quietly dazed Monte Carlo crowd had given up on him long ago. Yes, Youzhny did believe, and he was right, he was still in it. He held serve for 2-3 to keep the pressure on Djokovic, pressure that got to the Serb in the next game. Down 0-30, Djokovic argued with the chair umpire after being given a time warning; he claimed he was waiting for someone in the crowd to be quiet. A minute or so later he put a forehand into the net and was broken. It was one of 38 errors, against 24 winners, that Djokovic had on the day.
From there the match was, as British commentator Nick Lester put it, “a cracker.” At 3-3, Youzhny saved three break points with some dynamic play. On one, he came up with a cross-court forehand winner after a long rally; on another he brought Djokovic forward with a drop shot and won the point with a lob that touched down on the baseline. But he couldn’t do the same at 4-4. In that game Youzhny fell off his tightrope. At 30-30, he went for a winner with a backhand from well behind the baseline; it caught the tape. At break point, he went for a drop shot winner with the same shot; again, the ball caught the tape.
That’s what Djokovic does, even when he’s not at his best: With his consistency and court coverage, he forces the other guy to go for a little more than he normally would. Djokovic served out the next game handily for the match, 4-6, 6-1, 6-4. He held his hands up high over his head, and for a second it looked like he might bring them down and tear his shirt off. But no: He was too tired for that. Novak seemed more relieved than anything else. Next up for him: either Juan Monaco or Ernests Gulbis. It should, in theory, get easier from here. Djokovic is 6-0 against Monaco and 4-1 against Gulbis.