Only two years ago, Novak Djokovic was the master of his universe, standing head and shoulders above the rest of the field. At Roland Garros in 2016, Djokovic hit twin targets when he captured the French Open for the first time, simultaneously establishing himself as the first man since Rod Laver in 1969 to sweep four majors consecutively. Many critics believed the Serbian was destined to keep collecting Grand Slam titles almost automatically for a long time to come, to capture as many as he pleased, to control the climate of the sport indefinitely.
But, ever since, Djokovic has been a beleaguered figure, compromised by injuries, struggling to remember who he is and why he has accomplished so prodigiously. He had a largely dismal second half of 2016. He had to close his 2017 season down after Wimbledon because of an ailing elbow. And this year he has been an often-disconcerted individual; in seven tournaments coming into Roland Garros, his best showing was a semifinal a few weeks ago in Rome.
Yet that run to the penultimate round at the Italian Open was a crucial step for a man utterly determined to rebuild his game, reclaim his old psyche, and recover his pride. Today, Djokovic made it to the round of 16 at Roland Garros with a performance that was both encouraging and emblematic of his recent struggles to defeat his demons. Djokovic toiled for three hours and 48 minutes across four hard-fought sets against the industrious and enterprising Roberto Bautista Agut, but ultimately came through to oust the No. 13 seed 6-4, 6-7 (6), 7-6 (4), 6-2.
Match point from Djokovic's win over Bautista Agut in Roland Garros:
This was a match that the No. 20 seed Djokovic might well have won in straight sets. It was a battle he could have lost. He was agonizingly close to leading two sets to love, and infuriated when that opportunity eluded him. Then he was on the brink of trailing two sets to one. Down the stretch, however, he did not waver, securing 10 of the last 13 games to move across the finish line.
In the early stages, Djokovic was striking the ball with immense clarity, assurance and accuracy. Moreover, in the dry conditions during that period of play, Djokovic served with extraordinary precision. Over the course of the first set, he did not face a single break point. He backed up his serve beautifully with the kind of ball control that was once his trademark. With Bautista Agut serving at 4-5, Djokovic met the moment appropriately. He gained the break he needed to seal the set, implementing a deep forehand down the line to draw a backhand error from the Spaniard.
Djokovic took that set 6-4, and then opened up a 4-1 lead in the second. At 4-2, though, a self-inflicted wound hurt him appreciably. Serving at 30-40 in that seventh game, he served-and-volleyed behind a biting kicker. The court was open for a backhand first volley but, inexplicably, the Serbian sent that shot into the net. Soon the score was locked at 4-4. In the tenth game, Djokovic had a set point, only to pull a crosscourt forehand wide. Bautista Agut gamely held on for 5-5, but Djokovic had two more set points in the twelfth game.
The Spaniard was fortunate on one of them as his crosscourt backhand clipped the baseline and skidded, rushing Djokovic into an error. They went to a tiebreaker. Djokovic rallied from 4-6 to 6-6, and was stationed in mid-court for a forehand. He went after it boldly, but his shot unluckily bounded off the net cord and landed wide. An incensed Djokovic smashed his racket on the court a bunch of times. Bautista Agut opportunistically won that tiebreaker 8-6, climbing back to one set all.
The third set was pivotal. Djokovic seized a break in the first game, was broken twice, but made it back to 3-3. Bautista Agut, however, found his range. He claimed eight of nine points to lead 5-3. Serving for that critical third set in the ninth game, the 30-year-old came from 15-40 to deuce, but Djokovic was unswerving. A deep backhand crosscourt forced Bautista Agut into a mistake, and then the Serbian connected immaculately with a forehand inside-in that landed safely in the corner for a timely winner.
After both players held, the set was fittingly settled in a tiebreaker. In sharp contrast with how he acquitted himself in the second set tie-break, Djokovic was magnificent this time around, missing only one first serve in that sequence. At 5-2, luck was with Djokovic as he struck a backhand crosscourt let cord winner. Djokovic prevailed 7-4, moving ahead two sets to one.
Now the 12-time major champion was unstoppable. It had started raining hard late in the third set, but he hit through the court in the fourth despite the awfully slow conditions. Djokovic surged to 5-1 after breaking twice, lost his serve in the seventh game, but finished off the match with a top-of-the-line return game.
To be sure, Djokovic should have taken the second set, and that would have made his task a whole lot less complicated. But the fact remains that he salvaged the third set from a dangerous corner, and never looked back. The conditions in the second half of the match were similar to when Djokovic ousted Bautista Agut in the round of 16 two years ago in a two-day contest, with the balls turning into lead weights.
Overcoming his formidable clay-court rival in the rain again after squandering those second set chances was evidence that Djokovic is working his way past his woes and much closer to where he wants to be. Now he collides with the explosive Spanish 34-year-old left-hander Fernando Verdasco in the fourth round. Djokovic leads in their career series 10-4, although the record stands at 3-3 on clay. But all six of those matches were contested long ago, between 2006 and 2010.
The view here is that Djokovic will be ready for Verdasco, and for the two appointments that would follow. I will stick with my pre-tournament prediction that he will make it to the final. Some observers believed that the Serbian losing his composure at times against Bautista Agut was a sign of lingering insecurity and striking vulnerability. I see it differently. Djokovic flourishes most when he vents. The more he emotes from here on in at Roland Garros, the better his chances will be to bring out the best in himself.
—Tennis Channel Plus features up to 10 courts of live action from Roland Garros beginning Sunday, May 27 at 5:00am ET.
—Catch up and watch all your favorite stars anytime on-demand with Tennis Channel Plus.
(The availability of matches or events on TC Plus is subject to change.)