After his scratchy, scrappy, sometimes unhappy 7-6 (2), 6-4 opening-round win over Ricardas Berankis at the Western and Southern Open on Monday, Novak Djokovic was asked how it felt it to play a real match for the first time in six months.
Djokovic took an extra second, and a few extra breaths behind his mask, before he answered. I thought he might make a joke about how this match hadn’t made for the most welcome return. After all, he had been forced to call out the trainer to work on his stiff neck. He had been broken three times and pushed way behind the baseline by Berankis’s deceptive power. He had double faulted seven times. He had pounded a ball into the wall in frustration.
But, when he finally answered, Djokovic sounded pleased just to be part of the tennis world again.
“It’s great to be back,” he said, “and see the tennis family.”
In the end, Djokovic had emerged the victor, on a court whose speed seemed to catch him by surprise, and over an opponent who’s pace did the same.
“I had a great test,” Djokovic said. “It was anybody’s game.”
For some stretches, it looked like it might be Berankis’s game. He hit 22 winners to Djokovic’s 17, and he dictated a lot of the rallies from his position on top of the baseline. But each time the match reached a critical stage, Berankis fell apart.
He broke Djokovic three times, and on each occasion he was broken back in the following game. In one of those games, Berankis was broken at love, and in the other two he threw in momentum-crushing double faults. Worst of all, he began the first-set tiebreaker by netting three straight ground strokes to go down 0-3. Whenever Berankis sensed opportunity, it seemed, he lost conviction.
Whatever Djokovic’s other problems may be right now, he obviously still has his aura. Tonight it was like a force field that Berankis couldn’t punch through.
“I didn’t serve my best,” Djokovic said. He went big on his second serve a lot; his average first-serve speed was 117 m.p.h., and that only dropped to 107 on the second. But while he did commit seven double faults, Djokovic also had eight aces. Part of the problem was the stiff neck that he says has been bothering him for three or four days. He had a trainer thoroughly crack it between sets, but at the end of the night he still said, “It’s not where I want it to be.”
Despite the court, his serve, his neck, and his opponent, Djokovic did improve through the match. In the first set tiebreaker, he backed up, locked down, and let Berankis hit himself into trouble. By the end of the second set, Djokovic seemed to have found some semblance of his timing. He broke serve at 4-4 on a long rally and let out a howl; you could hear the night’s frustration in it. In the final game, he cracked a backhand winner down the line and won another point with a surprise serve and volley to up his record in 2020 to 19-0.
Game-wise and body-wise, Djokovic may not be where he wants to be. But he’s playing tennis again, and it sounds like that’s enough.