PARIS—At just 5’10”, Philipp Kohlschreiber is taller than a Jack Russell terrier, but not by all that much—and that advantage would be considerably reduced if, like the dog, he had to walk and run around on all fours. Kohlschreiber can be just as feisty as that terrier, though, and as difficult to dislodge once he sinks his teeth and clamps his jaw shut, as he showed on Court Philippe Chatrier in a fourth-round dogfight with top-seeded Novak Djokovic.
Seeded No. 16, Kohlschreiber is a 29-year-old who compensates for his lack of heft and power with an extremely versatile game. He’s another charter member of the BOHBC—the Beautiful One-Handed Backhand club—and he was the fourth member of that fraternity still kicking at Roland Garros at the start of this second week (the others are president Roger Federer, Richard Gasquet, Tommy Haas, and Stanislas Wawrinka).
Once Kohlschreiber takes a notion and brings all his skills to bear, he can inflict a lot of pain and prove hard to shake. Perhaps that was why Djokovic periodically twirled toward his support team after losing a point and flung his hands in the air, clearly asking, “What is up with this guy?????”
This was a particularly ugly day to play tennis, a circumstance that could not have improved the mood of Djokovic. The sun peeked in and out of the clouds, while periodic gusts of wind made an already chilly day seem frigid. It didn’t help that the collective hangover from an exciting weekend left almost the entire lower portion of the stadium close to empty. These were bleak conditions that may have mirrored Djokovic’s emotions less than 48 hours after he learned of the death of the woman who discovered him, designed his game, and made the young Serb believe that he was destined to be a great champion. Her name was Jelena Gencic and she passed away Saturday at age 77 back home in Serbia.
Djokovic looked like a man whose mind was elsewhere at the outset of the match, and Kohlschreiber took full advantage of it. As steely as his battleship-gray kit, Kohlschreiber immediately began firing all his cannons. Over the first four games, he successfully outdueled Djokovic in the latter’s stock in trade: Long rallies of escalating pace and power, often turning on or ending with an abrupt change of the ball’s direction. A break seemed inevitable, and it came to pass in just the fifth game. From deuce, Djokovic made a backhand error to end a rally and then Kohlschreiber tagged an un-returnable overhead to take a 3-2 lead.
There was no reason for Djokovic to panic, or check up on when he’d last taken a rabies shot. But as the ensuing games melted away, his play remained unconvincing while Kohlschreiber’s continued to shine. Djokovic made a big push for a break when Kohlschreiber served the 10th game, but was rebuffed twice at break point, and that was the first set, 6-4 to Kohlschreiber.
Djokovic is one of those players who has a great talent for calibrating his game as a match goes on, ratcheting up the stakes in rally after rally until the margin of error all but disappears. Although Kohlschreiber stayed on the pace for the next three games, Djokovic won a war of four deuces in the fifth game to break for 3-1. The key, though, was the next game. It contained seven deuces and four break points. Twice Djokovic produced a lusty roar after getting back to deuce, but it was hard to tell if it was an expression of triumph or a howl of pain from the way Kohlschreiber refused to let go.
Djokovic held on, though, and emerged with a 4-1 lead. But he found himself struggling again after a Kohlschreiber hold. Warned for a time violation, he hit a double fault that gave his opponent two break points at 15-40. It was at exactly that time that the terrier loosened his grip. Kohlschreiber suddenly began making forehand errors. Not “just missed” miscalculations, but prodigious, wild errors that enabled Djokovic to hold and serve out the set uneventfully, 6-3.
“The conditions were very difficult to handle both for me and him, but he adjusted better,” Djokovic would say of the early portion of the match. “In the start he was more aggressive. I was, you know, still trying to find the rhythm on the court, and, you know, the first set was gone. Obviously, I needed to step it up, and I've done that.”
Mindful that he was the victim in Kohlschreiber’s only career win against a Top 5 seed at a Grand Slam (it was here, in 2009), Djokovic added: “I needed to earn my victory, and in the end it was good. You know, I’m really glad to get through, because he’s a good quality opponent and he’s a specialist for this surface…it was an important win.”
Able to breathe more freely and run without that terrier dangling from his leg, Djokovic broke again in the third game of the third set, and that marked the point where he assumed command that would never really be threatened again as he ran out the match, 4-6, 6-3, 6-4, 6-4. But if you doubt that Djokovic was much troubled by Kohlschreiber, consider these stats: Nole had just eight break points compared to Kohlschreiber’s whopping 13. The winner converted 50 percent of his, while the loser broke just twice (for a 15 percent success rate). Given that Djokovic’s first-serve conversion rate was an excellent 74 percent while his opponent managed just 55 percent, it isn’t a reach to say that top seed got off lucky.
Well, Djokovic certainly deserved whatever break he could get following the unexpected death of Gencic—news that his team withheld from him on Saturday for fear of upsetting him right before he went out to play Grigor Dimitrov.
Djokovic was touching and articulate in his post-match presser, so much so that I’ll return to the subject of his relationship with Gencic in a separate post before the tournament is over. But for now let’s just say that Djokovic threw the customary caution about such things to the wind when he was asked if Gencic’s death might provide him inspiration in the tournament going forward. He replied:
“Absolutely. I feel even more responsible now to go all the way in this tournament. I want to do it for her, also, because she was a very special person in my life. I remember the last conversation we had, two weeks ago, about Roland Garros. You know she never held any words (back), not to me or to anybody close. That’s why people respected her, because she was honest and open.
“She told me, ‘Listen, you have to focus, you have to give your attention to this tournament. This is a tournament you need to win.’ You know, she was giving me this kind of inspiration and motivation. So now I feel in her honor that I need to go all the way. But, you know, again, it’s not about me only. There are so many great players around still in the tournament. It gives me that inner strength, you know, to push even harder.”
Those were bold and powerful words from an emotional, determined young man—one with a dog’s loyalty and enough heart to make good on his promise.