With Paris on the horizon, Novak Djokovic rights the ship in Madrid

With Paris on the horizon, Novak Djokovic rights the ship in Madrid

The world No. 1 played Madrid like a man determined not to beat himself; if he doesn’t, not many opponents can.

What’s the first sign that one of the Big 3 ATP stars is going to have a good day? With Rafael Nadal, you can see it in the depth of his shots. With Roger Federer, you can often see it in his first-serve percentage. With Novak Djokovic, there’s a sharpness to his movement, and a precision to his shot placement, that typically spells doom for his opponents.

Sharpness and precision had largely been absent from Djokovic’s game since January, but they were very much in evidence from the first moments of his final against Stefanos Tsitsipas in Madrid on Sunday. In the second game, Tsitsipas hit a well-disguised drop shot that, for half a second, looked as if it might win him the point. Not today; not against this opponent, in this form. Djokovic got a jump on the ball, reached it easily, and won the point. A minute later, he had the first break of the match. A minute or two after that, he had guided a forehand for a winner to take a 3-0 lead. In the process, Djokovic had also made it obvious that one of Tsitsipas’ primary weapons, the drop shot, was only going to get him so far today.

From there, Djokovic’s eventual 6-3, 6-4 win had an air of inevitability to it. Where Djokovic was sharp and a step ahead, Tsitsipas was sluggish and a step behind. He had played one more match in Madrid than Djokovic, who was given a walkover by Marin Cilic in the quarterfinals. More problematic for Tsitsipas, he had finished his three-set semifinal win over Rafael Nadal late the previous night. Afterward, Djokovic said he could see that the Greek “wasn’t as dynamic in his movements” on Sunday. The 20-year Tsitsipas can do a lot of things, but beating Nadal and Djokovic back to back, in less than 24 hours, isn’t one of them yet.

“Physically, I was not there,” Tsitsipas said afterward, while also crediting Djokovic’s excellent form.

However Tsitsipas was feeling, this was an impressive and important week for Djokovic. After losing early in Indian Wells, Miami and Monte Carlo, he didn’t drop a set in Madrid, and he edged one of the top contenders for the French Open, Dominic Thiem, in two tiebreakers in the semifinals. Djokovic’s movement and ball-striking were back to normal, but it was his mentality that made the biggest difference. Djokovic played this tournament like a man who was determined not to beat himself.

In the semifinals, he shrugged off a series of time violations, and when Thiem broke him in the second set, Djokovic broke back right away. In the last game of the final, Djokovic tightened up, squandering three match points with errors; but he didn’t show any signs of frustration or anxiety. On Saturday and Sunday, Djokovic defused two explosive shot-makers, Thiem and Tsitsipas, with smart serving—he exposed Tsitsipas’ weaker backhand return with his kick serve in a way that Nadal didn’t—and prudent shot selection.

The bailout drop shot that can plague Djokovic on clay had vanished; he was willing to stay in rallies as long as necessary, and to work hard to maintain his mental equilibrium. He won two key points, one in the semi and one in the final, with towering defensive lobs, followed by brilliant passing shots. There was a sense that this was a man with a Grand Slam to win—and a Djoker Slam to complete—in a few weeks, and he was going to do whatever it took to get himself ready for that challenge. It was also, as Djokovic said, the first week where he had been coached by his brother Marko, and there were notably fewer stares toward his player box. Maybe keeping it in the family helped keep Djokovic calm.

“It was a very, very important win for my confidence,” Djokovic said. “I wasn’t playing my best tennis after Australia. I was looking to regain the momentum this week, and I didn’t drop a set the entire tournament. I’m very pleased; I played some of my best tennis here.”

When the final was over, Djokovic barely celebrated; just a short fist pump on his way to the net. There’s more, and bigger, business ahead for him. Does this win make him the favorite for the French Open? He’s up there with Nadal and possibly Thiem, but we have to see how all of those guys look—especially Rafa—in Rome. The only time that Djokovic won at Roland Garros, in 2016, he was also going for a Djoker Slam, he also lost early in Monte Carlo, and he also won Madrid. (In case you’re wondering what happened in Rome, Djokovic lost the final to Andy Murray, before beating him in the final in Paris.)

In other words, after looking shaky for months, Djokovic’s quest for his next major title suddenly seems to be proceeding according to plan. He may not be the clear-cut favorite in Paris yet, but he’s clearly No. 1 in the world again.