Plenty of firsts then, but not the first time he had faced Djokovic across a net. Their only previous meeting was over a year ago at the Australian Open, a straight-sets defeat for the Briton, though at the time, Bedene was ranked at just 116. By last year’s French Open, he had broken the top 80, and by the end of July, the top 70. By the end of the year, he was at a career high 45.
This season, niggling injuries had done his cause little good—first to his leg, then his wrist—and nor had the extended delays to the ITF hearings that would determine whether he could play for the British Davis Cup team. It was announced that he could not, despite gaining his British passport a year before.
But in beating Gerald Melzer and then the higher-ranked Pablo Carreno Busta, the latter in a gutsy five-setter, Bedene had looked both fit and confident. He admitted afterwards that endurance had once been a problem, but not now:
“I was really, really unfit when I started to play Grand Slams… well, for a professional. I was struggling.”
It’s a big admission, but the quietly-spoken Briton was now eager for the chance to take to the big arena, and believed he had learned a lot from that first meeting.
“Yes, I did learn a lot. That you shouldn’t have in any sloppy games. I have to be focused, have to play my game, and see what happens… I know if I play well, anything can happen. But he’s the world No1 and he’s here to win the French Open for the first time. I think he’ll be fully motivated.”
Of that there was no doubt. Djokovic has made little secret of the fact that completing his career Grand Slam with the only Major missing from his resume is a key priority. And while Bedene could now claim two matches and two wins at Roland Garros, Djokovic had won 50 from 61 matches here: Three times a runner-up, four further times a semi-finalist. And he arrived here with five titles already—among them the Australian Open and three Masters.
It would have been understandable if both men started poorly after the tournament was forced into a scheduling nightmare by storms across Paris. This particular one was moved to Suzanne Lenglen to follow Venus Williams’ contest against Alize Cornet, but was moved back to Philippe Chartrier at the last minute—7.15pm to be precise. If he did not beat Bedene swiftly, he may have to return the next day.
And he did begin quickly, holding serve and then breaking, and he was 3-0 before Bedene hit his stride. But the two began to exchange crisp, extended rallies, punctuated by some demanding drop shots. Bedene got the look at a break in the fifth game courtesy of a blistering forehand down the line, but Djokovic survived.
Even given a time violation, the Serb held with ease, and went on to break again for the set, 6-2, in 37 minutes.
In the second set, it was Bedene who started fast, though he could not take advantage of two break points in the opening game. His serving, which had been such a highlight against Carreno Busta—23 aces—ensured a good hold for 1-1, but he seemed to be letting Djokovic settle into a great rhythm from the baseline, and the Serb plied his perfect length with pace to each corner to force the errors. It also forced a break in the fourth game and, after a love hold by Djokovic, another break.
But serving at 5-1, Djokovic made a couple of errors and Bedene took full advantage to pull back a break. He showed great staying power and resilience to stave off an onslaught from Djokovic—four break points and five deuces—finally holding with more big serving. But breaking Djokovic more than once is a Herculean labour, and sure enough, the top seed held for 6-3.
It was becoming gloomy as the clock edged to 9pm, and Bedene took a medical time out to administer eye drops. But half an hour later, they were still playing through one of the most intense phases of the match.
The Briton stood toe-to-toe with Djokovic, and although he was broken in the first game, he pressed the Serb hard in the second and broke back in the fourth through some sizzling rallies that defied the dying light.
Djokovic was having to find his best tennis of the tournament, defending as only he can, and time and again he was forced into over-hitting. He broke for 3-2, just held on to his own serve when a cracking Bedene forehand was overruled as out, and despite some clutch serving from the Briton to hold for 3-4, Djokovic was in a hurry to finish. With two hours on the clock, he broke Bedene for the match, 6-3.
They could not have continued any longer, and Djokovic will be mighty glad to get this one finished in the nick of time. But Bedene proved what an improved player, both mentally and physically, he has become. He will surely use his performance here as real confidence-booster for the rest of the year.
Djokovic will next play No14 seed, Roberto Bautista Agut, for a quarter-final place after the Spaniard beat teenager Borna Coric, 6-2, 6-3, 6-3.
Former French Open finalist David Ferrer, seeded No11, made light work of the No21 seed and fellow 34-year-old compatriot, Feliciano Lopez. He had to do it in two bouts, however. Having just broken in the third set for a 2-1 lead, the deluge hit Paris, and they would return a couple of hours later for Ferrer to win four games in a row to seal the match, 6-4, 7-6(6), 6-1.
He next plays No7 seed Tomas Berdych, who beat No25 Pablo Cuevas after dropping the first set, 4-6, 6-3, 6-2, 7-5.
The biggest upset of the day, though, was in the lower quarter of the top half of the draw. A day after nine-time former champion Rafael Nadal withdrew from his third-round match here with a wrist injury, the next highest seed in that quarter, No6 Jo-Wilfried Tsonga, was forced to retire with a thigh injury at 5-2 up in the first set against unseeded No80, Ernests Gulbis.
Marcel Granollers, ranked 56, advanced to the slot left by Nadal’s withdrawal, thus leaving No12 David Goffin and No13 Dominic Thiem as the only seeds in that section. Each, then, could find themselves not just in their first Grand Slam quarter-final but competing with each other for a first semi-final.
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