FRENCH OPEN: Darkness Saves Day for Novak Djokovic. Juan Martin del Potro had him Rattled like We Haven’t Seen all Year

Novak Djokovic at the French Open

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.

Juan Martin del Potro, back to his old self soon

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.

About gregcouch

I can talk tennis all day long, and often do. And yet some of the people I talk to about it might rather I talk about something else. Or with someone else. That’s how it is with tennis, right? Sort of an addiction. Sort of a high. I am a national columnist at FoxSports.com and a FoxSports1 TV insider, and have been a columnist at the Chicago Sun-Times. In 2010, I was the only American sports writer to cover the full two weeks of all four majors, and also to cover each of the U.S. Masters series events. I’ve seen a lot of tennis, talked with a lot of players, coaches, agents. I watched from a few rows behind the line judge as Serena rolled her foot onto the baseline for the footfault, a good call, at the 2009 U.S. Open. I sat forever watching a John Isner marathon, leaving for Wimbledon village to watch an England World Cup soccer game at a pub and then returning for hours of Isner, sitting a few feet from his wrecked coach. I got to see Novak Djokovic and Robin Soderling joke around on a practice court on the middle Sunday at Wimbledon, placing a small wager on a tiebreaker. Djokovic won, and Soderling pulled a bill out of his wallet, crumpled it into his fist and threw it at Djokovic, who unwadded it, kissed it, and told me, “My work is done here.’’ And when Rafael Nadal won the French Open in 2010, I finished my column, walked back out onto the court, and filled an empty tic tac container with the red clay. I’m looking at it right now. Well, I don’t always see the game the same way others do. I can be hard on tennis, particularly on the characters in suits running it. Tennis has no less scandal and dirt than any other game. Yet somehow, it seems to be covered up, usually from an incredible web of conflicts of interest. I promise to always tell the truth as I see it. Of course, I would appreciate it if you’d let me know when I’m wrong. I love sports arguments and hope to be in a few of them with you here. Personal info: One-handed backhand, serve-and-volleyer. View all posts by gregcouch

One response to “FRENCH OPEN: Darkness Saves Day for Novak Djokovic. Juan Martin del Potro had him Rattled like We Haven’t Seen all Year

  • John JM

    GC: What do you think of the rivalry situation when Del Potro comes back fully? Are you expecting mainly Delpo–Djokovic? Delpo–Nadal? Or perhaps still Djokovic–Nadal?

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