Hard as it is to explain the lack of a Cincinnati title in Novak Djokovic’s trophy case, it’s nearly as hard to explain how his latest quest for one was almost derailed in his opening match. The world No. 1, a four-time runner-up at this Masters event, led Gilles Simon by a set and a break. He was three for three on break points. He was doing exactly what a top seed is supposed to do in an early-round night match.
And then, Djokovic hit the wall. I mean that in two ways: The seven-time Grand Slam champion began to rack up unforced errors—a direct result of Simon playing at his frustratingly brilliant best. The Frenchman is not a regular on the ATP Hot Shot page, but if they had a Hot Rally section, he’d contend every day. He could have submitted a 43-shot exchange in the third set for consideration, where Simon diffused every Djokovic shot with an effective reply. He is the human version of the backboard, the wall that never misses, and I mean that in the most respectful way possible.
Before that demonstration of Simon’s talents, he was asked to save six break points in the first game of the third set, which he did after an arduous 12 minutes and 39 seconds. Simon’s play, a steady diet of forehands and backhands combined with nimble footwork, doesn’t force the opponent to do anything differently. But counterintuitively, it forces them to think about what they are doing even more. That seemed to confound Djokovic, who retreated into passive stances along the baseline, afraid to assert his trademark aggressiveness. The problem with that is, it’s a death sentence to wait out Simon for an error.
As this pattern continued through the first half of the final set, most of Djokovic’s service games became a mental and physical challenge. But as I was writing that down in my notes, Simon let a 40-0 lead slip, descending into deuce. He would hold for 3-2, but it served as a bit of foreshadowing.
Djokovic followed with a comfortable hold, which seemed to free him up. While serving from “behind,” it was as if he was playing with house money in this particular game. More aggressive with his forehand, he reached 15-40 and broke serve on his first chance for a 4-3 lead.
Although Simon would win the aforementioned 43-shot rally in the next game, one that troubled Djokovic yet again, the Wimbledon champion’s eventual hold signaled that he’d passed the evening’s biggest test. Simon can smother opponents while ahead, but playing from behind is a larger ask. He did that in the second set, but couldn’t replicate that in the third, in part because of Djokovic’s renewed confidence. With a kick serve and bolder groundstrokes, Djokovic took the last point of his 6-3, 4-6, 6-4 win, keeping alive his chance at becoming the first player to win all nine Masters titles.