“It’s a weird match.”
There was no arguing with her. Djokovic’s 6-3, 4-6, 6-4 win, in two hours and 37 minutes under suitably slate-gray skies, was what we might call an anti-classic. It was long, it was close, it was competitive, it came with plenty of twists and turns and surprises—pretty much everything that happened was a surprise—but from a spectator’s standpoint, it was more exhausting than entertaining. There were nine breaks of serve, and neither player was able to hold onto to any momentum for more than a few points at a time. It felt as slippery as the clay beneath the player’s feet.
And maybe that clay had something to do with the quality. This was Djokovic’s first match of the season on the surface, and he looked appropriately rusty and tentative to start. In the early going, he hung back and let Kohlschreiber do the dictating, and by the fourth game the German seemed to have gained the upper hand. Last month, Kohlschreiber recorded his second win over Djokovic in 10 attempts. Was that going to give him the confidence to do it again?
We got an early answer in the fifth game: Presented with the easiest of forehand passing shots on break point, Kohlschreiber ran through the ball and nervously missed it long. It was just the first of many crucial mistakes at important moments from him; while he would convert on four break points, he would squander 12 others. Apparently, one win wasn’t enough to make Kohlschreiber forget his eight previous losses to Djokovic.
Still, the world No. 1 was only marginally better today. Djokovic began without any of his customary consistency; he would leave one ball short and send the next five feet long. While he briefly found an aggressive baseline groove at the end of the first set, he had lost it again by the middle of the second. He double faulted seven times and repeatedly drilled his backhand into the middle of the net. When he was broken at 2-3 in the second, Djokovic obliterated his racquet; a few games later, he sent another frame flying into the photographer’s pit in a futile attempt to chase down a Kohlschreiber winner.
“It gets to a point where you feel like he’s playing well, then it goes away a little bit,” Carillo’s booth partner, James Blake, said.
But Djokovic won. He won because, in the third set, he found a way to control the rallies long enough to start holding serve. He won because Kohlschreiber kept missing key shots at the wrong moments, including a routine backhand on break point at 4-3. He won because, despite all of his struggles—his errors, his glares, his double faults, his racquet smash, his four blown match points—Djokovic never pulled the mental ripcord. After early defeats in Indian Wells and Miami, and with a chance at a second Djoker Slam looming in Paris, he must have felt like he needed a solid start to his clay season. “Solid” isn’t the first word that comes to mind after this performance, but the result will let him play another day this week, and possibly many more.
“He fought better than he played,” Carillo said as a relieved Djokovic took his post-match bows.
There was no arguing with her there, either.