At first glance, it looks like Monte Carlo’s powerhouse men’s interclub team all went out en masse for a hit and giggle.
Novak Djokovic, the Zverev brothers, Marin Cilic, David Goffin, Grigor Dimitrov were on hand – a powerhouse lineup. All went out and did their part for La Fondation Prince Albert II de Monaco. The Monaco sovereign’s charity is devoted to the environment and sustainable development.
But there were some non-resident exceptions: Dominic Thiem (still a resident of Austria) and Lucas Pouille (Dubai) also took part.
(Some celebs most of us in North America have never heard of also participated).
Meanwhile, some pretty high-level qualifying matches were going on on the outside courts. Seppi vs de Minaur, Troicki vs Stakhovsky and Delbonis vs Mahut toiled as the stars took over the Court Central.
TennisTV streamed the charity event on Facebook:
As well, Djokovic went out and had a little hit with his son, Stefan.
Yannick Noah, the captain of Team France, brought six players with him to Lille.
Jo-Wilfried Tsonga and Lucas Pouille were pretty much locks to play the singles. The burning question was, who would he line up in doubles?
That question was answered at the draw Thursday.
And the two oldest members of the team, Nicolas Mahut and Julien Benneteau, will be on the sidelines cheering as Noah selected Richard Gasquet and Pierre-Hugues Herbert for the other two spots on the four-man roster.
For Mahut, it has to be a major blow. Mahut and Herbert were 3-0 this season in Davis Cup, defeating Japan, Great Britain and Serbia with the total loss of only one set.
For Belgium, there wasn’t the same embarrassment of riches.
David Goffin will be expected to win both his singles matches, with Steve Darcis playing No. 2.
The two other Belgian players are Ruben Bemelmans and Joris de Loore.
The best, most accomplished doubles tandem on the French side is Herbert and Mahut. The pair qualified for the ATP Tour Finals together last week, and Herbert had a lower back issue there that hastened their withdrawal from the event.
Doubles experience lacking
Still, during the three days of practice this week, Mahut and Benneteau were playing doubles together. The logical conclusion was that the two might be the two selected for the crucial doubles rubber on Saturday.
They also have a lot of experience together.
But no; Herbert and Gasquet are the selections for doubles (although it’s always possible Noah may make substitutions before Saturday’s rubber).
Gasquet is not exactly a doubles guy. He did reach a ranking of No. 45. But that was nearly 10 years ago. He has two career titles: Metz with Fabrice Santoro in 2006, and Sydney with Tsonga in 2008.
He has played just two doubles matches all season, both with Lucas Pouille.
Herbert has never teamed up with Gasquet, or Tsonga, or Pouille. Which has to mean Noah is confident that it won’t come down to a pickup doubles team.
Or that he has health concerns with Tsonga or Pouille, and wants to have a third top-shelf singles player if he needs one.
The action begins Friday, 9 a.m. EST. Same start time for Saturday’s doubles. The Sunday reverse singles begin at 8:30 a.m. EST.
France and Belgium announced their nominations for the Davis Cup final Tuesday morning.
And, for different reasons, there weren’t many surprises.
In fact, they’re the same lineups both squads used in their victorious semifinal ties in September.
For the visiting Belgium squad, which doesn’t have the depth its nearest neighbour does, it’s a matter of all hands on deck and hoping everyone is healthy enough to play.
In the case of undisputed No. 1 David Goffin, it’s “hope that knee holds up through the ATP Tour Finals this week”.
For the French, the attrition of the 2017 season has left captain Yannick Noah with fewer options than he may have had under ideal circumstances. But … he’s bringing six players to Lille, and he’ll decide on the final lineup closer to the tie.
Since this final may well represent France’s final shot at the elusive silver chalice for awhile, as a great generation is limping towards its golden years, Noah also hopes the bodies hold up.
The most secure pick for Noah is the doubles team of Pierre-Hugues Herbert and Nicolas Mahut, who also are the No. 6 seeds at the ATP Tour Finals this week and and came back from the brink to upset No. 3 seeds Jean-Julien Roger and Horia Tecau in their round-robin opener on Sunday.
Unlike most doubles picks, the two also are good singles players as well.
Time for Pouille to shine
For the singles, Noah finds himself with a Gaël Monfils whose season is done because of injury. And he also has a Gilles Simon whose ranking is in freefall. Since Lyon, a small tuneup event just before the French Open in May, Simon has won back-to-back matches just once, in Shanghai last month.
(As it happens, the second of those wins was against Goffin, and on a hard court at that).
Noah has gone with Jo-Wilfried Tsonga, who defeated both Dusan Lajovic and Laslo Djere in the semis against Serbia. The other pick is Lucas Pouille, who lost to Lajovic. That tie, in the same Stade Pierre-Mauroy in Lille, was on red clay.
After a poor summer in North America, Tsonga played very well indoors until an unexpected early loss to countryman Julien Benneteau in Paris.
As for Pouille, he’s had an up-and-down season with some very good weeks and some head-scratching early losses.
Both players, however, remain in the top 20. And Pouille played Goffin three times in 2016, and won all three matches. Tsonga is 4-2 against Goffin.
The alternates for France are Benneteau and Richard Gasquet, which is a fine bench and given Benneteau’s amazing run in Paris just a week ago, it wouldn’t be crazy to see him on the final roster.
The French, denied so many times despite having one of the deepest rosters over the last decade, are looking for their first Davis Cup title since 2001.
They won that one over Australia, beating Belgium in the semifinals.
For Belgian captain Johan Van Herck, it all goes through Goffin, who must reverse the trend against both French opponents and win both his singles rubbers.
His second singles player, Steve Darcis, pulled off a nice win against Australia’s Jordan Thompson to seal Belgium’s semifinal win.
Darcis has never faced Pouille.
His only match against Tsonga came back in 2002, when both were teenagers on the Futures circuit. And it ended in an early injury retirement by Darcis.
And when Darcis takes the court, he won’t have played a match since the home Antwerp event in mid-October.
The other two Belgian players, Ruben Bemelmans and Arthur de Greef, would be the underdog doubles pairing.
Alternate Joris De Loore is ranked No. 279 in singles and No. 344 in doubles and had surgery in mid-September, injuring his knee the week before the semifinal against Australia. He and Bemelmans pulled off impressive doubles wins against both Germany and Brazil and if he appears healthy, de Loore may well substitute for de Greef.
A surprise finalist in 2015, Belgium has never won the Cup.
It seems the country’s celebrated tennis landscape has rarely been more dysfunctional. And yet, France’s Davis Cup squad has earned its best and perhaps final legitimate chance going forward to raise the Davis Cup.
Despite producing generation after generation of talent, France last won the Davis Cup in 2001. It last won it on home soil in … 1931.
But this year, it will have a chance to do it at home, against the plucky but undermanned Belgium in late November.
It began slowly, as No. 2 Lucas Pouille went down to Dusan Lajovic in four sets to open the tie on Friday.
“I have a lot to do with Lucas’s loss. At a certain point, we weren’t really communication any more. I felt, in the end, I was hurting him. That’s not a good feeling,” Noah told l’Équipe afterwards. “I have a lot influence on this group, and when I get it wrong, everyone gets it wrong. So much talk about how difficult the match was going to be; I may have soaked too much of that in. I passed on my stress to Lucas.”
But Jo-Wilfried Tsonga (in his first Davis Cup appearance in 14 months) didn’t drop a set against Laslo Djere. (Noah said he spent most of the first two sets not saying a word, just thinking). The doubles team of Nicholas Mahut and Pierre-Hugues Herbert won in straight sets,. And then Tsonga came back to win in four against Lajovic to clinch it.
Goffin did his job; he won his singles matches against Jordan Thompson Friday and Nick Kyrgios Sunday in four sets. But it was Steve Darcis, a 33-year-old who reached a career high in singles (No. 38) this past May but has dealt with hamstring and lower back issues the last few months, who was the difference.
Darcis didn’t win on Friday. But he pushed Kyrgios to five sets. And given the top Aussie isn’t in the best of health, no doubt it had an effect on the fifth and deciding rubber Sunday.
Kyrgios took on Goffin – and lost in four. Darcis then took care of Thompson to clinch the tie.
So much goes into making a Davis Cup final these days. And the result is that the best, deepest tennis nation isn’t winning all that often.
You wouldn’t think a one-man team like Belgium could do it twice in three years. But with so many top players taking a pass, if the draw breaks right, an upstart team can take advantage.
Even France, a loaded team, defeated Japan (no Nishikori), Great Britain (no Andy Murray) and Serbia (no Novak Djokovic, Janko Tipsarevic or Viktor Troicki) to reach the final this year.
France generally has all its top players available – and a deep pool to choose from. But it’s been a tough go despite the fact that the current generation – Tsonga, Gaël Monfils, Gilles Simon and Richard Gasquet – all have been in the top 10.
France last reached the Davis Cup final in 2014. But that happened to be the year Switzerland had both Roger Federer and Stan Wawrinka on board – at the same time – to try to add the silver chalice to their resumés.
Monfils defeated Federer in straight sets on the first day, which game them hope. But they lost the key doubles rubber. And then Federer clinched it on Sunday against Gasquet.
The 2010 final, played in Belgrade with the Serbs featuring full-form Djokovic, Tipsarevic and Troicki, was a drama all to itself.
As both squads decided who to suit up for the fifth and deciding rubber, captain Guy Forget got played a little. They were all certain Serbia would bring back Tipsarevic. Instead, they got Troicki (who had disappeared off the bench to go warm up seemingly without France’s knowledge, while Serbia was well aware that Gilles Simon remained on the French bench).
Forget was debating whether to put out Simon (who was 4-0 against Troicki) or Michaël Llodra. He chose fellow lefty serve-volleyer Llodra, who got trounced. And there were French tears all around.
Will this be the time they finally do it?
Internal drama starts at top
A long-awaited title this year might be even more sweet to the players, since French tennis is an internal hot mess right now.
By tennis standards, the infighting might even be at West Wing level.
It all seemed to go downhill after a quarterfinal loss to Great Britain in 2015.
Captain Arnaud Clément, who played with many of the current veteran crop, was summarily sacked. And the imposition of rock star captain Yannick Noah (it appeared Jo-Wilfried Tsonga was the strongest voice in his favor) did nothing for team unity.
Rather removed from the day-to-day tennis scene in France, and the instigator of an inconvenient, expensive relocation to Guadeloupe for the first round against Canada a year ago, Noah has come under criticism for being a negligible source of support to the players except for the week they come under his tutelage.
His relationship with Monfils reportedly is fairly non-existent. His relationship with Tsonga, once thought to be solid, wavered when Noah called him out during the quarterfinal tie in Rouen back in April.
As for this semifinal against Serbia, L’Équipe reported the players feel Noah didn’t prepare. They never even saw him at the US Open just weeks ago; Noah’s only involvement was two phone calls to his assistant captain.
To be so out of the loop on the players’ current forms and states of mind so close to the crucial tie didn’t go over well. He would also have no first-hand assessment of the players who might dress for Serbie.
And, L’Équipe writes, that may well have shown in the Pouille defeat. The future of French tennis preferred to listen to his own coach’s tactical advice rather than that of Noah.
When he was first elected president, Giudicelli often lauded Pouille for his grit. He even invented a new verb, “to Pouille“, which meant, “Facing and conquering one’s fear to impose one’s game, while drawing energy from the public’s support.”
But when the 23-year-old lost in the third round of the French Open and said that the inability to handle his nerves had led to cramping, Giudicelli turned on both Pouille and his coach.
Giudicelli said he couldn’t revolutionize French tennis after just 108 days in office. And in the first French Open under his leadership, no French male player reached the quarterfinals. Overall, it was the poorest showing since 2000. Hence the attack on his players’ grit.
But on the women’s side (so often ignored by French Federation suits unless it suits them), two made the singles quarterfinals. That, of course, was due to Giucidelli’s leadership and involvement leading to their increased motivation – despite only being in office 108 days.
Noah and Giudicelli
As this tie against Serbia neared, Noah admitted there were tensions between the federation and his players and he sided with his players; the message was relayed to Giudicelli that he wouldn’t tolerate the president’s comments “polluting” the players.
There was some backstory to that, too. Noah’s lifelong friend Gilles Moretton (a former French player) was suing Giudicelli for defamation, after Giudicelli refused Moretton’s candidacy for president of a French league because, he said, Moretton had been one of those involved in the 2011 ticket reselling scheme that eventually doomed Giudicelli’s predecessor, Jean Gachassin.
(Giudicelli, a high-level French Federation official, had previously been accused of putting the cone of silence on Gachassin’s alleged involvement, perhaps in the hope that it would help his presidential campaign. That accusation is contained in a report on the scandal by a government body called “The Inspector General for Youth and Sports”. Gachassin is accused of selling some 250-700 French Open tickets – for years – at cost to a travel agent friend who then resold them at up to five times their face value. The tribunal’s decision on this case was postponed, and due to be announced on Tuesday).
His lawyer, speaking in his defense, said Giudicelli was responsible for ending the scam.
L’Équipe chronicled an awkward moment Thursday when Giudicelli tried to say hello to Lucas Pouille three separate times, only to be dissed and dismissed.
“Hello, Lucas,” the president said to Pouille – on three occasions.
Giudicelli pushed it even further. “So, we don’t say ‘Hello’ any more, Lucas?”
Pouille, who had been talking to someone else, turned around. “Sure, we say hello. And goodbye.”
Belgians go quietly along
Among the many things Noah said over the weekend was that he fully expected France to have to travel to Australia for the final. That would have been a rematch of the 2001 final, that was won by the French in Melbourne. And so, full circle.
Van Herck: "Noah a dit hier qu'il allait sûrement aller en Australie j'espère qu'il n'est pas fâché de jouer en France." #noah daviscup
How about Bercy, which will be the site of the Paris Masters event just a few weeks before? According to BFM.TV, the rap group IAM are booked there that weekend.
BFM.TV says the French federation has already been in contact with the brand new U Arena in Nanterre, in the French suburbs – finally completed after the usual French bureaucratic delays and set to open next month with three concerts by the Rolling Stones.
Wherever it is, there’s a great dynamic brewing between France’s Goliath and Belgium’s David – literally.
For all the news about this weekend’s Davis Cup ties (and more great pics like the one above, go to their website.
Goffin was a quarter-finalist in Rome two weeks ago. He also reached the semi-finals of the clay-season opener in Monte Carlo. Goffin defeated Nicolas Almagro and upset French Open favorites Dominic Thiem and Novak Djokovic in succession there, before running out of gas against an in-form Rafael Nadal.
Zeballos now gets a free pass into the round of 16. The 32-year-old has never been past the second round in Paris – despite his clay bona fides – in nine previous trips to Roland Garros. He will meet the winner between No. 6 seed Thiem and American Steve Johnson.
“It’s a bad accident. It’s very unfortunate. I don’t know necessarily if he got stuck in the tarp, but I also believe there is concrete underneath those tarps for the drainage, so I don’t know which part he got stuck in,” Canadian Milos Raonic said. “Obviously when you’re getting in that area there, whether it be in the back of the court, or on the sides, there is some kind of I guess exposure to danger.
“But what happened even in that scenario, you can tell it was a freak accident. I hope it’s nothing too serious for him.”
Reigning women’s champion Garbiñe Muguruza said the same thing happened to her a few years ago.
“I hurt my ankle on the court with a tarp, as well. I was trying to catch a lob, and my ankle was caught under the tarp. I saw the video. It’s the same that happened to Goffin,” she said after her victory Friday. “On center court there is a lot of room, so it is quite unfortunate. But maybe the tarp should be more to the side.”
Coach Thierry van Cleemput came in to update the media about the state of his Goffin’ ankle. Here’s what he said (translated from French):
“He went to have an MRI. The good early news is that there is no avulsion fracture (arrachement osseux), no ligament tear. But that really means nothing, because there’s edema, so only in 48 hours will we will be able to see how it is,” Van Cleemput said. “We know there is nothing seriously major that will keep him away from the courts for a long time. But right now, we can’t tell you when he’ll be back on his feet.”
“Will he play on the grass, and when. Unfortunately I can’t answer that question,” he added.
Van Cleemput said that he didn’t see what happened at first; he was following the ball. But when someone stays down on the court that long, you know the pain is acute. “When we took off the shoe and sock, we saw the ankle was cooked. Two big edemas on each side,” he said.
As to whether the French federation and the tournament itself needs to assume some of the responsibility, because Goffin’s foot slid under the court cover at the back of the court, Van Cleemput wouldn’t offer an opinion. But he did say the question was out there. “Obviously they want optimal safety on the court for the players. The Roland Garros staff is sufficiently professional to ask itself the right questions. So certainly there are consequences to that,” he said.
ROLAND GARROS – Who knows if Rafael Nadal will be holding the Trophée des Mousquetaires for the 10th time in his career, two weeks from Sunday.
But one thing’s for sure: he’s absolutely crushing the ball.
The Mallorcan might have run out of juice in Rome against Dominic Thiem a week ago, after winning Monte Carlo, Barcelona and Madrid before he got there. He certainly wasn’t serving nearly as hard by the end of that week as he had been on his 15-match, three-title streak.
But having arrived in his Paris backyard after a brief trip home, he seems energized and chomping at the bit to get started.
Nadal always looks that way. He especially looks that way here. But for the first time in several years, he REALLY looks that way.
The men’s singles draw, which was made Friday, came out decidedly bottom-heavy.
In the top half are No. 1 Andy Murray and No. 3 Stan Wawrinka. Neither of these two Grand Slam champions showed anything during the clay-court prep swing that would indicate they should have championship ambitions here.
In the bottom half, you’ll find Nadal. (He could meet the hard-hitting Jack Sock on the fourth round; the two practiced together Thursday). And you’ll find No. 2 Novak Djokovic, the defending champion, and No. 6 Thiem in the same quarter.
Only one of those three, arguably the three best clay-court players in the draw, can make the final.
So if Nadal is go into double digits in Paris, he definitely won’t sail through.
First up will be the mercurial Frenchman Benoit Paire in the first round.
After a Masters 1000, there are often some big moves in the rankings. And because of the upsets in Monte Carlo, even more lower-ranked players were able to make big moves.
By winning the title, Rafael Nadal was able to regain the Monte Carlo points that dropped off last Monday (Remember, the schedule is slightly tape-delayed this year, and instead of the points from a previous year’s tournament falling off at the conclusion of that same tournament this year, they’ll often fall off as it begins instead. That will lead to some temporary fluctuations).
So he’s back at No. 5.
Had either Milos Raonic of Canada and Kei Nishikori of Japan played in Monte Carlo that might not have happened, because they’re right behind him in the rankings. But both are out with injuries. Nishikori pulled out of Barcelona this week, which cost him. Raonic is scheduled to return next week at the ATP Tour 250 event in Istanbul, Turkey.
Players on the upswing
David Goffin (BEL): No. 13 ————> No. 10 (Back in the top tier after a terrific Monte Carlo)
Albert Ramos-Viñolas (ESP): No. 24 ————> No. 19 *** (New career high for the surprise Monte Carlo finalist, and a welcome to the top 20)
Diego Schwartzman (ARG): No. 41 ————> No. 34 *** (New career high, and he can aspire to getting seeded in Paris)
Yen-Hsun Lu (TPE): No. 63 ————> No. 55 (Lu won his home-country Challenger in Taipei. At 33 he just quietly keeps going).
Janko Tipsarevic (SRB): No. 99 ————> No. 71 (Tipsarevic won the Qingdao Challenger on clay in China. This is as high as he’s been since February, 2014. A year ago, the former No. 8 was outside the top 600 after missing so much time because of injury. A long way back).
Frances Tiafoe (USA): No. 87 ————> No. 72 *** (Still only 19, the American hits a career high with a win at the Sarasota Open. He also coined a phrase. Now that Alexander Zverev has turned 20, he’s the highest-ranked teenager on the ATP Tour.)
Tennys Sandgren (USA): No. 156 ————> No. 136 *** (The American, who played in his first ATP Tour main draw in Houston, reaches the Sarasota Challenger final and a new career high).
Players on the downswing
Fernando Verdasco (ESP): No. 31 ————> No. 36 (Verdasco won Bucharest last year – now Budapest – and loses those points. He has little defend the rest of the clay-court tuneup season, though, and could still snag a French Open seed)
Benoit Paire (FRA): No. 40 ————> No. 49 (Paire was a Barcelona semi-finalist a year ago. He snagged a spot at the very bottom of the draw this year when No. 2 seed Nishikori withdrew as the No. 17 seed, and so put himself in a more favorable position to try to earn back some of those points.)
Alexandr Dolgopolov (UKR): No. 68 ————> No. 82 (Troubled by leg and groin injuries this year, Dolgopolov has played just four matches – and won just one – since the South American clay-court swing in February).
Ernesto Escobedo (USA): No. 73 ————> No. 85 (After setting a new career best last week following a great result in Houston, the young American falls back after points from a finals showing at a Challenger in Brazil a year ago fall off).
Federico Delbonis (ARG): No. 84 ————> No. 98 (A year ago, Delbonis was reaching a career-high ranking of No. 33. He has played in fits and starts).
Guillermo Garcia-Lopez (ESP): No. 100 ————> No. 115 (At 33, the veteran is slowly fading down the charts. He was a semi-finalist in Bucharest last year, hence the points loss. No chance to do anything in Barcelona; he lost Monday to wild card Albert Montañes, who is playing his final career tournament).
The Race to London
Three of the usual suspects are at the top. But we suspect this leader board won’t look quite the same by US Open time.
Notables out of the top eight: Andy Murray (No. 11), Nick Kyrgios (No. 12), Kei Nishikori (No. 13), Milos Raonic (No. 21).
The Race to Milan
Not sure that’ll catch on as a tag line, but Tiafoe is the notable mover in the “race” to qualify for the inaugural Next-Gen year-end event this fall.
They say one bad line call shouldn’t affect the outcome of a tennis match. Because it’s only one point.
But a particularly egregious one early in David Goffin’s semi-final match against nine-time champion Rafael Nadal in Monte Carlo Saturday did change everything.
The ball was so far out that Goffin circled the mark and walked away, certain that when veteran chair umpire Cédric Mourier came down from to take a look, he would see it and quickly confirm the linesman’s call.
Except … he didn’t. Mourier appeared to find a different mark, and overruled.
Goffin was up a break, serving at 40-30 and 3-2 in the first set. The correct call would have given him a 4-2 lead. There was a long way to go but the Belgian, who upset Novak Djokovic in the quarter-finals the previous day, would have continued to ride a wave of confidence.
Watch it here:
Instead, he got very upset. It was uncharacteristic, and clearly it affected him. After Nadal broke in that game, the crowd booed as the players went to sit down. After Nadal won the first set, they booed again. Goffin won just one more game the rest of the way as Nadal moved on to play countryman Albert Ramos-Viñolas in the final.
The Hawk-eye replay, used only for broadcast purposes during the clay-court events, clearly showed Mourier was way off base. As in, not even close.
You could tell by Nadal’s unusually subdued reaction after the victory that he felt for the guy. But of course it’s not his job to call the lines – especially from an entire court’s distance away.
“When I start a match against Rafa, I know that I have to be 100 per cent focused, give 100 per cent mentally and physically. And it was a very good match at the beginning. I felt really good, there was a lot of intensity. And when you have (an umpiring) error like that, an event like that, it’s difficult. You see the mark … You try to get going again,” Goffin told the French media in Monte Carlo. “I know that I have to get back into it but it demands even more energy, it demands being able to step it up. But I couldn’t, because I was already at 110 per cent. It was without a doubt too much for me. Nadal is used to these big big matches, and he was able to step it up.”
Goffin said he didn’t have anything against Mourier. “He’s very nice, but he makes mistakes. He showed me something – I don’t know what! And I saw on his face that he was nervous, unsure. But for him, he has to stand by what he decided; he can’t change it. He tried to be a bit of an actor, playing a “sure of himself’ umpire. But hey, I’m not the type to complain for days and weeks. The match is over, I have to move on,” he said.
Nadal too far away
“The only strange thing was the reaction of the fans,” Nadal told El Español. He said that if it had happened on his side of court, he would give the opponent the point – as he has often in the past. “From 25 meters away, I can’t see that,” Nadal said. The Spaniard added that Goffin knew Nadal hadn’t done anything out of order, and Nadal even apologized at the net after the match. “His frustration was with the umpire, not with me,” he said.
Would the entire situation have been resolved with the use of Hawk-eye? Of course. But in this case, it should never have happened in the first place.
At the very least, Mourier should have sought the counsel of or confirmation from the baseline official who made the (original) out call, to make sure the mark he was looking at was the correct one. It didn’t appear he did that. It’s unlikely in that situation that a linesperson is going to take the initiative to make the chair umpire look foolish in front of thousands, and many more watching at home. You would hope they would; but they know who makes out the reports.
So it was a regrettable situation purely because of the umpire’s error. It didn’t need to happen.
Novak Djokovic has, hands down, always been one of the most gracious losers in sports.
In recent years he didn’t have that many opportunities to show it. These days, though, it’s becoming far more of a habit than he would like.
The world No. 2 was taken down by the ultimate David, Goffin of Belgium, 6-2, 3-6, 7-5 Friday in the quarter-finals of the Monte Carlo Masters after being up a break of serve in the third set, and looking for all the world as though he had just dodged another tennis bullet.
This time, it didn’t happen.
Goffin handled the blinding rays of the early-evening sun on Monte Carlo’s stadium court better than Djokovic did. He changed the direction of the ball and hit it more aggressively to the corners than Djokovic did. And in the end, the 26-year-old Belgian believed enough to survive four unsuccessful match-point attempts to win it on the fifth try.
“That side was terrible. It was almost unplayable. I just got disturbed by that light,” Djokovic told the media in Monte Carlo after the defeat. These aren’t things that the Serb moaned about before; he knows that it was the same for his opponent.
Career match for Goffin
It was the first career victory over a top-three player for Goffin, who goes about his business quietly, has had the same coach for years, and raises his level with each passing year.
But what of Djokovic, seemingly unbeatable two years ago but now appearing increasingly vulnerable?
Djokovic through April 2015: 30-2 2016: 28-2 2017: 14-4
Many players would be happy with 14-4. By Djokovic standards, that’s a slump. Even this week, he barely got through his first two wins despite winning the first set on both occasions. The victory over Gilles Simon (a player similar to Goffin although with less attack on the groundstrokes) was 7-5 in the third set after Simon served for the match. The victory over No. 13 seed Pablo Carreño Busta of Spain was 6-4 in the third set.
There were two ways that could go. The first would be to take those great escapes and use them for fuel, taking it out on his next opponent. Rafael Nadal did that; after edging out Kyle Edmund of Great Britain, Nadal gave a superior opponent, Alexander Zverev, a 6-1, 6-1 lesson on his 20th birthday.
The alternative was the way it eventually went down. The two difficult wins turned out to be an indicator of what was to come.
Where does Djokovic go from here?
What’s happening? The answers to these questions are never one-sided. It’s not just that Djokovic isn’t playing at the superhuman level he was in 2015. Who could keep that up? And it’s not that his opponents are suddenly playing the tennis of their lives against him.
It’s a complex combination.
The essence of Djokovic’s game is consistency and high percentages. When the ball comes down the line to him, he’ll almost always go crosscourt. When the ball comes down the middle to him, he’ll generally hit it back through the middle. He rarely leaves himself open for returns he can’t cover. And he hardly misses. His second serve is deep when it needs to be. And he can survive anyone out there on the physical side.
When opponents came up against him, they knew that they would have to hit him off the court; there was almost no way to outlast him. That Djokovic came to the court with an unbeatable aura made it exceedingly difficult for his opponents to have the belief that they could, to have the confidence they needed to make the shot every time they changed the direction of the ball or went for a down-the-line winner.
As his aura has dimmed ever so slightly, the confidence of his opponents in those endeavors has increased in similar proportion. What’s left is to execute. Goffin did that Friday.
In terms of meters run, Goffin actually ran more than Djokovic. But during the match, it didn’t feel that way. It was the Belgian who pulled his higher-ranked opponent corner to corner, wearing down his legs, before pulling the trigger on more aggressive shots. At times, late in the match, Djokovic raised the level on his aggressiveness – because his back was to the wall. But it wasn’t enough.
Adjustments to adjustments
Tennis, especially on the men’s side, is a game of adjustments and adjustments to adjustments. It happens within matches. It also happens during the course of players’ careers. One player’s head lifts high above the rest of the field. The field collectively then looks for ways to try to close the gap. As they do that, that player must look for new moves himself to counter the challenge.
In the eternal final game of the match Friday at 5-6, Djokovic put himself in a 15-40 hole with a pair of bail-out backhand drop shots that were so ill-advised, it told you everything you needed to know about his confidence level and lack of clear thinking.
Don’t think Goffin didn’t pick up on that. Don’t think the entire locker room didn’t pick up on that.
For the last few years, Djokovic hasn’t had to make any major tweaks; the suit of armor around his game was enough to dominate the ATP Tour. Now, though, it may be time to revisit. He may well have to try to expand his comfort zone, get into the habit of dictating points earlier in the rallies and taking a few more chances on the changes of direction. It’s not a technical change as much as it’s a mindset change. It doesn’t mean he has to suddenly start charging the net. But it’s not a particularly easy one for a player who turns 30 next month.
He’s more than talented enough to do it. And he can look to Roger Federer, nearly six years older, as a model in the game of adjustment-making. And if he does it during the long clay-court season, it will serve him well later in the year on the grass and the hard courts, where it will pay off in spades.
It’s back to the drawing board, in a sense.
Former coach Boris Becker, apparently, is watching. He Tweeted this right after his former charge was beaten.