Novak Djokovic rolls on. Is that what just happened? Yes and no. He did finish off Juan Martin del Potro easily, routinely, Saturday 6-3, 3-6, 6-3, 6-2 to advance to the final 16 at the French Open. They played the final two sets after the match had been stopped because of darkness the night before.
But the truth is this: Darkness saved the day for Djokovic.
A tale of two days? Moreso, it was a tale of one: Friday. What happened Saturday was expected, as Djokovic is playing to well, too consistently for del Potro, maybe for anyone. Delpo missed a year with wrist surgery, then suffered a small tear in his hip a few weeks ago. He’s not fit yet, not rust-free, not used to Djokovic’ level. Some people are asking if Djokovic is the world’s most dominant athlete. . .in any sport.
Maybe so. But on Friday, he was the second best player on the court. He was shaken, he was rattled. The nervous tick on his serve had returned, thanks entirely to del Potro’s pressure. And if it hadn’t been for darkness setting in, Djokovic, still playing great, would have been rolled.
Give him credit: He was ready to be great again on Saturday. But the elephant in the room for tennis is this: Del Potro is on the way back, and a healthy del Potro can dominate this game like no one else.
Last we saw of him healthy, in the final of the U.S. Open in 2009, he was crushing Roger Federer a day after crushing Rafael Nadal.
The general feeling among analysts was that the break after Friday night’s match would favor del Potro. Instead, it saved Djokovic. Del Potro isn’t in shape enough yet to play a grinding five sets. That’s particularly true Djokovic, the most fit player in the world. But del Potro had momentum after that second set Friday. He had found what he needed. Djokovic’ hope was that he could figure something out to stop him (doubtful) or that del Potro would run out of gas (possible).
But it was most unlikely that del Potro would return on another day at the same level. He’s just not there yet.
Imagine a boxer knocking everyone out, gaining supreme confidence, knowing that nothing can stop him and no one can hurt him. Then, someone knocks him down three times. In the end, he wins, sits there with a few missing teeth and says, “See?’’
On Friday, del Potro was overwhelmed at first by Djokovic’ level, angles, pace. He hadn’t seen that in a long time, if ever. The shocking thing, though, was that it took del Potro less than an hour to find a strategy that might work.
When Delpo was crusing forehands, as he always does, Djokovic was just crushing them right back. Del Potro could not hit through Djokovic, as he does others. So he started throwing in changeups. Not only did that make Djokovic supply his own pace, but more importantly it threw off his timing.
Djokovic is a timing-animal.
So he became rattled. He double-faulted again, a problem that seemed to be in his past. You don’t usually see big bashers who are also such thinkers on court. It tends to be one or the other.
Now, it’s possible that del Potro wouldn’t have kept that up for two more sets. But two things:
1) Del Potro was reminding us what he can do, providing a sign that he’s going to be himself again if his body holds up. (Think: Early favorite for U.S. Open).
2) This seems to be the new, and developing book on how to beat Djokovic.
At this point, no one has figured out how to beat him. Djokovic has been too good for everyone all year. I’ve picked Nadal to win the French, though, because he always does and because I thought he was spending the past few weeks trying less to beat Djokovic than to adjust his game to him for the French Open.
Truth is, Andy Murray was the first one to mix up paces on Djokovic, in Madrid. He almost ended Djokovic’ streak right there, throwing off his timing and not allowing him to feed off Murray’s pace so consistently. Then, Nadal tried to follow, even testing out moonballs against Djokovic. That didn’t work well, but did show some results.
It’s more effective, though, when it comes from del Potro. It’s like a pitcher with a 100 mph fastball suddenly throwing in 85 mph changes. The greater the variation, the greater the confusion. You can’t time him any more. Of course, it takes the ability to throw both pitches for strikes.
Well, on Saturday, del Potro wasn’t at the same level. He was right where I expected him to be for the whole tournament, honestly. He’ll be ready soon enough.
But a tennis match about the here and now. The streak continues, now at 42 wins in a row for Djokovic.
He just keeps rolling.