“The change on the men’s ranking, top of the men’s rankings, is coming,” Novak Djokovic said earlier this week in Rome. “Whether it’s gonna happen in a month or a year or whatever, I don’t know.”

You might think Djokovic would be the last person to welcome this change. He is, after all, the guy at the top of the rankings. But Djokovic says he’s “not personally paying too much attention.” He’s been up there long enough.

“I have managed to achieve the milestone of the historic ranking No. 1, and that was the focus up to recently,” he said. “Now it’s more about really trying to peak at Grand Slams and make those count for my career.”

His attitude is understandable. Djokovic will turn 34 later this month, he’s been on tour for 16 years, he has a wife and two kids, and he knows, like we know, that his career will ultimately be judged on how many major titles he finishes with. The days when he could expect to win virtually every Masters 1000 and Slam in a calendar year are surely behind him. So far in 2021 he has has skipped two of those Masters events, in Miami and Madrid, and his record coming into Rome was just 3-2 on clay.

“It’s a different schedule from what I had for so many years,” he said. “I'm actually looking forward to take that next step in my career and my life where I’m gonna spend more time with my family and just do other things that interest me. But at the same time, I do play specific amount of tournaments that would prepare me as best as possible for the Grand Slams.”

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After being pushed, Djokovic responds in testy Rome win over Fritz

After being pushed, Djokovic responds in testy Rome win over Fritz

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The questions going forward will be: Can Djokovic stay engaged mentally and in shape physically while caring about his results at just four tournaments a year? And can he maintain a No. 1 player’s aura of invincibility without being No. 1? To some extent, Djokovic has always prioritized the majors, but he was also a full-time player who was motivated each week to do what he could to keep his No. 1 spot. Now he’ll have to flip the switch more quickly before each Slam.

Djokovic is planning to play four tune-up events before Roland Garros (he’ll go to Belgrade again after Rome). He says that should be enough, and on paper, it should be. But his early loss in Monte Carlo and his absence in Madrid has left him needing matches, and needing to start building some momentum before Paris.

Traditionally, he has done that in Rome, where he has reached the final there 10 times, and won five titles. On Tuesday, Djokovic took the first step toward another deep run by beating Taylor Fritz, 6-3, 7-6 (5). But it wasn’t as straightforward as the score might indicate.

Djokovic was annoyed by the steady rain that pounded down on the Foro Italico, and by the chair umpire’s unwillingness to consider stopping. When he served for the match and was broken at 5-4 in the second set, Djokovic went from annoyed to apoplectic. By then, with the rain coming down harder, the umpire didn’t have much choice. After a two-hour delay, Djokovic came back and closed out Fritz in a tight tiebreaker.

“It was a very strange match with strange conditions,” Djokovic said. “Obviously playing under the rain non-stop for almost two full sets, it is challenging for both me and him.”

“I was stressed out in the end obviously, but I think it was the right call to stop the match.”

After being pushed, Djokovic responds in testy Rome win over Fritz

After being pushed, Djokovic responds in testy Rome win over Fritz

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Until 5-4 in the second set, Djokovic was in firm, if not quite total, control. He moved Fritz from corner to corner with his ground strokes, and up and back with his drop shots. But Fritz gradually dug in and found some rhythm, and when they came back after the rain delay the two were on level terms. Yet as tight as things got, and as mad as he was, Djokovic was still able to take a deep breath and find the shots he needed. Serving at 5-6, 30-30, he hit two unreturnable first serves. Down 4-5 in the tiebreaker, he came up with two more first serves, and played three smart, solid points to close out the win.

“When I came back, I thought we were quite even actually till the last point,” Djokovic said. “I’m glad that I managed to finish off this match in straight sets. I know I can play better, and I’m going to work tomorrow trying to make sure I do that in two days.”

After a day off, Djokovic will play either Cam Norrie or Alejandro Davidovich Fokina. Assuming he wins that, he could face either Stefanos Tsitsipas or Matteo Berrettini in the quarters. Djokovic may be aiming for Roland Garros, but he also knows that his preparation for Paris can’t start there. He may not care about being No. 1 in the rankings, but he’s not going to want to let anyone think they can beat him in the big ones, either.

After being pushed, Djokovic responds in testy Rome win over Fritz

After being pushed, Djokovic responds in testy Rome win over Fritz