Novak Djokovic overcomes injury scare in five-set thriller at French Open


Novak Djokovic on his knees, covered in red dust after a fall

Novak Djokovic dusted himself off to fight back and beat Francisco Cerundolo

How does he do it? Novak Djokovic’s French Open title defence took on an almost surreal dimension on Monday night, as he switched from being apparently unable to push off his right knee to the most improbable feats of athleticism.

If we had not seen it before, we might rank his five-set comeback win over Francisco Cerundolo as a career-best feat of escapology. But Djokovic operates by different rules to other players, and anyone who goes up against him must always be ready for a sting in the tail,

Djokovic called the trainer to the court midway through the second set, having apparently made a false move on a stretching backhand overhead. “I screwed up my knee,” he told supervisor Wayne McKewen. “I’m sliding and slipping all the time.”

The trainer would return twice more to attend to the joint, and in between those treatments, Djokovic continued his frustrated conversation with McKewen about the state of the court. He insisted that the clay needed extra visits from the court sweepers, who normally only come at the end of each set, because it was too loose and slippery underfoot.

“I’ve asked,” McKewen replied, “and the groundsman said the court is normal, for them.” To which Djokovic replied “For them? But you are supervisor, you are representing us players. I’m telling you as a player it’s not okay and you’re going to go with the grounds people that never play tennis?”

As if to reinforce his argument, Djokovic would also suffer a heavy fall deep in the fifth set of his 6-1, 5-7, 3-6, 7-5, 6-3 victory. But he was not going to let this one get away. Each time he slipped behind, and even when he was abandoning rallies because of the pain in his knee, he still had that Terminator glint in his eye: the one that says “I’ll be back.”

Novak Djokovic does the splits to make a winning returnNovak Djokovic does the splits to make a winning return

Djokovic won a point with an incredible splits return – Getty Images/Clive Mason

Novak Djokovic does the splits to make a winning returnNovak Djokovic does the splits to make a winning return

The Serb ended up spread in a star shape on the clay – AP/Christophe Ena

At four hours and 39 minutes, here was another crazy epic to rank alongside Djokovic’s nocturnal exploits against Lorenzo Musetti on Saturday night.

Logic says that you cannot win the title after clocking up almost 14 hours in the first four rounds. Logic says that these desperate feats will take a toll on a 37-year-old body. But logic does not always win out on a tennis court. And when Djokovic enters Defiant Mode, putting him away becomes arguably the hardest task in the game.

Cerundolo played a hell of a match, striking 68 clean winners and competing manfully. He has one of the better forehands on the tour, a venomous ball-strike loaded up with the sort of top-spinning revolutions that make a ball whistle through the air. And there were times – especially when Djokovic was hobbled – when he was hammering that forehand away at will.

Cerundolo received a sympathetic reception at the end, when a few boos rang out among the cheers. There must have been fans who thought that Djokovic’s mid-match woes – in which he regularly failed to run for balls he would usually track down with ease – had been a form of gamesmanship.

But then it is hard to see what he would gain from throwing away points in this manner. More likely, the injury was mitigated by painkilling pills, so that he was able to start focusing on the ball rather than his body.

Djokovic complains about baby’s cries

From the end of the fourth set onwards, Djokovic found vintage form, locking into lengthy backhand-to-backhand rallies which robbed Cerundolo of his most dangerous weapon. Again and again, he would land the ball within a couple of inches of the lines.

And yet Djokovic had been tetchy since the beginning of the match, stretching his neck out and complaining about everything from the brightness of the light to a baby calling out in the crowd. His knee trouble may have been anticipated by the tape he was wearing on the joint when he arrived at Roland Garros earlier in the day.

It would hardly be surprising if he was feeling some wear and tear after that 3.07am finish in the small hours of Sunday morning. But then Djokovic can handle these physical affiliations in a way that others struggle to understand. He claimed to have sustained a 25mm abdominal tear while winning the 2021 Australian Open, and a 3cm hamstring tear the following season.

In among all the drama, Djokovic inevitably set a couple of new records. This was his 370th major victory, eclipsing Roger Federer’s 369, and his 59th quarter-final appearance, beating Federer’s 58. Afterwards, he told the French fans that “I need to say a big thank you because again like my last match the win is for you and helped by you.”

As Djokovic moved through to the last eight, the bookmakers lengthened his odds to just over four-to-one. Perhaps they felt that he would be unable to recover. But such judgements are hard to make with any confidence, at least when dealing with this unique sporting specimen. As the giant slogan on the side of Court Philippe Chatrier says, “Victory belongs to the most tenacious.”

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