Heading into the Italian Open this past week, Novak Djokovic was not only chasing a fifth title in Rome, nor was he simply operating under normal circumstances. He was moving into uncharted territory. Djokovic was still in the early stages of an unimaginable aftermath after being disqualified from a fourth-round match at the US Open for slapping a ball carelessly and inadvertently hitting a lineswoman in the throat.
Djokovic’s disqualification sent shock waves across the tennis world, leaving this prideful Serbian astonished as he tried to digest what had happened in New York. He made the wisest move possible by electing to appear in Rome, playing his first match on the clay only 10 days after his distressing incident in New York. Although he never struck gold and found his finest form, the fact remains that Djokovic conceded only one set in five contests, taking the title over Diego Schwartzman, the Little Big Man of tennis who had toppled the redoubtable Rafael Nadal for the first time in 10 career showdowns on quarterfinal day.
To win the second-most important clay-court title in tennis and a record 36th ATP Masters 1000 crown in the process was no mean feat for Djokovic. It was particularly gratifying for the Serbian because he rose to an important occasion and captured his fourth tournament of 2020 so soon after one of the lowest moments of his career. That he found a way to achieve this latest extraordinary feat when so many in the cognoscenti believed his psyche might be deeply or even permanently wounded confirms what his biggest boosters have known for a long while—Djokovic is a champion of rare character and durability, a man of considerable inner strength and a resilient individual who has always made a genuine attempt to learn from his mistakes and gain a greater understanding of himself.
As Mary Carillo said on Tennis Channel following Djokovic’s 7-5, 6-3 victory over a typically tenacious Schwartzman, “Here’s what I hope for this guy—that he doesn’t have to go into the French Open now being asked all sorts of questions about the US Open default. Hopefully he covered all of that here in Rome and he ended up winning the thing anyway. That’s what I hope for him.”
Djokovic said, “It was a great week, a very challenging week. I don’t think I played my best tennis throughout the entire week but I think I found my best tennis when I needed it the most, in the decisive moments today, yesterday and practically every match. That makes me definitely very satisfied and proud that I managed to find that fifth gear when it was most needed. Now we are turning to Paris, but I couldn’t ask for a better tournament here in Rome. It’s another big title and I am super pleased with it.”
As well he should be. Djokovic opened his quest for that fifth Italian Open triumph with a 6-3, 6-2 win over the Italian wild card Salvatore Caruso in the second round, playing reasonably well without ever really being tested. But then he collided with countryman Filip Krajinovic in the round of 16, and this protracted baseline duel was played out on a stifling afternoon, featuring one bruising rally after another. Djokovic rallied from 4-1 down in a first-set tiebreaker to prevail, 7-6 (7), 6-3.
In the quarterfinals, Djokovic took on Dominik Koepfer, the left-handed qualifier from Germany. He made hard work of that skirmish, wasting a 4-0 lead in the first set, losing his serve two times running to allow Koepfer back on serve. Djokovic managed to close out that set 6-3 and led 3-1 in the second set. Yet he lost five of the next six games to concede the set before regaining control of the encounter with sturdier baseline play and improved serving. Djokovic triumphed, 6-3, 4-6, 6-3.
Now facing Norway’s Casper Ruud in the semifinals, Djokovic found himself in another bind late in the opening set. Ruud was setting the tempo with his signature forehand, building a 5-4, 40-15, double-set-point lead. But Djokovic laced a two-hander crosscourt with added velocity to provoke an error, and then executed an impeccable backhand drop shot winner down the line. He raised his game immensely and succeeded, 7-5, 6-3.
In the final against Schwartzman, Djokovic had to play through early-match rain and arduous conditions. He needed to move past his own self-grievances. Djokovic fell behind 3-0 and two service breaks against the 5’7” Argentinian, making a rash of errors off his normally trustworthy two-hander. Yet Djokovic amassed four games in a row to get back in the set and claimed it with some clutch play at the end.
From 3-3 in the second set, he secured 11 points in a row as he traveled to triple match point in the ninth game. On his third match point, Djokovic prevailed, and now his career record in finals is an astounding 81-34. Even more remarkably, of those 81 titles, 58 have been garnered at Grand Slam events, Masters 1000 tournaments and the ATP Finals combined. They call that prioritizing.
Djokovic has set himself up nicely for the French Open. To be sure, Nadal—despite his setback against Schwartzman in Rome—remains the clear favorite to win a 13th crown. Dominic Thiem—inspired and confident after taking his first major at the US Open—will be a force in Paris after reaching the final the last two years. Yet the feeling grows that Djokovic will be not only determined but confident as he looks for a second title at Roland Garros and strives to establish himself as the first man since Rod Laver took his second Grand Slam 51 years ago to win all four majors at least twice.
None of the leading players are as well prepared as usual for the world’s premier clay-court tournament. Thiem will come into Paris cold because he needed to rest and recover after his emotionally and physically draining final with Alexander Zverev at the US Open. Nadal played three matches in Rome but had not competed since winning Acapulco at the end of February.
Nevertheless, Nadal is thoroughly at home when he steps on court at Roland Garros. In his 15 years of competing at the sport’s clay-court shrine, the 34-year-old Spaniard has lost only twice while once (in 2016) being forced to withdraw before a third-round meeting with an injury. No one has beaten Nadal at Roland Garros since 2015, when Djokovic ended a six-match losing streak against the Spaniard with a quarterfinal victory.
Djokovic will be primed to reclaim the title he secured four years ago and thus win an 18th major. Nadal will have time to play his way into form over the course of the fortnight. Thiem believes in himself on clay more than he does on every other surface—with good reason.
But the fact remains that Djokovic is the finest all-surface player in the game of tennis, almost equally comfortable no matter what is beneath his feet. If he is in the right frame of mind, if he can take his game up a notch from where it was in Rome—and especially if the draw breaks his way, with Thiem landing on Nadal’s half—Djokovic could well be the man holding up the trophy in Paris on October 11.