The Paris Interview: Djokovic chats with Prakash

An excellent autumn has helped make Taylor Fritz the highest-ranked American male and brought him close to cracking the top 20. Improved fitness, fierce forehands and powerful serves have all helped propel Fritz up the ranks. It’s been a pleasing site to see this 24-year-old’s game sharpen and concurrently trigger hope that he has even more great moments to come.

But bright as Fritz’s future looks, today there was the present-day matter of taking on a player as formidable as Novak Djokovic, Fritz’s opponent this Friday in the quarterfinals of the Paris Masters. This was their third meeting of 2021, Fritz having extended Djokovic to five sets at the Australian Open and then competing well in Rome before losing, 6-3, 7-6 (5). “It's going to be a tough one,” Fritz said yesterday following his round of 16 win over Cam Norrie. “You know, third time this year. I felt like the first two this year have been pretty close matches, and obviously playing my best tennis, so I think if there was a time, it would be now that I can really push him.”

Djokovic was deeply aware of what Fritz could bring. Fritz’s comeback from two sets to love down in Australia had compelled Djokovic to dig deep, to the point where once Djokovic finished that match, he issued some of the loudest post-victory yells of his career. One significant factor was that, amid a COVID-related curfew, all spectators left Rod Laver mid-match, dramatically altering the atmosphere. “This is definitely one of the most special wins in my life,” Djokovic said after beating Fritz. “Doesn't matter what round it is and against who it is. Under these kind of circumstances to pull this through is definitely something I'll remember forever.”

This one was far less dramatic. Over the course of 73 minutes, Djokovic ground down Fritz, 6-4, 6-3, to reach the semis in Paris for the seventh time. Having received a bye to start and a walkover coming into this contest, Djokovic was only playing his second match since the US Open. Said Djokovic after taking his quarterfinal, “But, you know, having been in this situation many times before, it also helps to analyze and correct certain things the next day.”


Djokovic has defeated Fritz at four different Masters 1000 events, all in straight sets.

Djokovic has defeated Fritz at four different Masters 1000 events, all in straight sets.

Clearly still rusty, Djokovic dropped his serve twice in the first set, including when he served for it at 5-3. But even a patchy Djokovic is hardly easy to compete against. All match long, Djokovic’s unsurpassed movement, balance and depth dared ask Fritz if he truly had two sets worth of firepower.

Certainly, Fritz had his moments. With Djokovic serving at 2-0 in the first set, Fritz broke at love, an effort highlighted by a superb forehand down-the-line winner. In the 5-3 game, Djokovic serving at love-30, Fritz capped off the point of the match, a lively 26-ball rally, with an untouchable down-the-line backhand.

But as is the case at all levels of the game, hitting winners is rarely the path to victory. The trick is to apply just enough pressure to compel your opponent to overhit or grow meek. Djokovic is a master at generating such imbalance. Serving at 4-5, 30-15, Fritz lashed a crosscourt forehand wide, netted a backhand and, after saving one set point, misfired off the ground on the next two rallies. Though Fritz broke Djokovic to start the second set, the American lost his serve in the next game and then failed to convert a 15-40 lead on Djokovic’s serve at 1-all.

From there, Djokovic marched towards victory in toothpick-by-toothpick fashion. Fritz began to look labored, perhaps the result of his long weeks of tennis, but also a function of Djokovic’s remarkable ability to continually squeeze opponents into trying too much. A weary Fritz was broken at 2-3 and from there, Djokovic didn’t lose a point on his serve, closing it out with a lunging backhand volley winner.

So continues Djokovic’s quest to finish the year ranked number one for a record seventh time. A win Saturday over No. 7 seed Hubert Hurkacz would clinch it.

“Obviously nothing is guaranteed,” said Djokovic, “but, you know, I have trust and faith in myself, in my game, and I feel the more time I spend on the court, the better I'm going to play.”