Novak Djokovic's form: Ominous? Maybe not yet. Intriguing? Definitely

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Novak Djokovic has dropped just one set on his way to the quarterfinals. (Anita Aguilar)

PARIS—Once upon a time, in the glory years, when Novak Djokovic was putting the clamps down on a helpless early-round opponent, we used to say his form looked “ominous.” In other words, the rest of the field might want to set their sights on second-place.

Back then, a 6-3, 6-4, 6-2 win over a player like Fernando Verdasco in the fourth round of a major might have qualified as ominous. It might have sent out the message that, whatever had happened earlier in the tournament, Djokovic was rounding into form for the second week, and that the longer a match went on, the stronger he was going to get.

Those were the scores of Djokovic’s fourth-round win over Verdasco on Sunday. Let’s leave aside the word “ominous” for now; we know the 2018 version of Djokovic has been far from that. So how about...threatening? Or... intriguing? That might fit the bill.

WATCH—Match point:

Despite the seemingly friction-free scoreline, Djokovic’s performance wasn’t—to use another term from the old days—clinical. He made eight more errors than winners (29 to 21). He watched many of his down-the-line backhands fade wide, his drop shots and drop volleys fall short, and his routine ground strokes sail long. He also saw a putaway overhead end up in the bottom of the net. With his regular grunting and sometimes herky-jerky motions, this was Djokovic the workmanlike winner rather than Djokovic the smoothly efficient man-machine. The first three games alone took 30 minutes.

“Very physical, very long games, a lot of exchanges,” Djokovic said. “He came out on the court with a lot of self-belief, and he started off pretty well and made me work very hard.”

To see and hear Djokovic work that hard in Court Philippe Chatrier was also to be encouraged. He wore Verdasco down in those first 30 minutes with the type of effort hasn’t always been there this season. Unlike his perfunctory performances in Indian Wells and Miami, Djokovic commanded this vastest of all tennis stages like a champion. Despite the late hour, a near-capacity crowd stayed to cheer him.

“I think in the important moments today, I just managed to play an extra shot in the court and just made him run and just made him uncomfortable,” Djokovic said. “I think from that point of view I did very well. I was very happy with the overall performance, especially in the third set.”

There was plenty for a Djokovic fan to like. He was broken just once, and he converted five of his 10 break points. He made 73 percent of his first serves, and won 69 percent of points behind his second serve. Djokovic’s crosscourt backhand was a rally-changer, and he had some of his old precision back on his high-looping ground strokes, which he landed within a few inches of the baseline with regularity.

Along with that precision, though, one of Djokovic’s old pet peeves resurfaced: After winning the first set, he complained to the chair umpire that the court hadn’t been watered—that’s one Roland Garros memory no Novak fan wants to relive.

Yesterday, I wrote that now that Serena Williams has made it to the second week, we have to start seriously asking if, even after hardly playing at all this season, she could win the French Open. Can we ask the same thing of Djokovic?

With his draw, the answer has to be yes. In the quarterfinals, he plays 72nd-ranked Marco Cecchinato, who before last week had never won a match at a major. Cecchinato, who beat David Goffin today, has been a frequent practice partner of Djokovic’s in Monte Carlo; Djokovic will be a heavy favorite in their first meeting.

After that, he would face either Alexander Zverev or Dominic Thiem. Those two young guns have had much better 2018s than Djokovic, but would you bet on either of them to beat a fully committed Djokovic in the semis of a Grand Slam? If Djokovic were to reach the final and face Rafael Nadal, he wouldn’t be the favorite, but he is one of only two men to beat Rafa at Roland Garros.

“Rome was probably the best tournament I have played so far this year,” Djokovic said, “and now Roland Garros is probably even better. Hopefully it’s going to get even better.”

Ominous? Maybe not yet. Intriguing? Definitely.

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