Monte-Carlo Masters

Monte-Carlo Masters 2017: Former champion Novak Djokovic survives Simon test, but Tsonga loses

Novak Djokovic drops the second set on his way to victory over Gilles Simon in his Monte-Carlo Masters opener as Jo-Wilfried Tsonga is knocked out

novak djokovic
Novak Djokovic is a former champion in Monte-Carlo Photo: Marianne Bevis

There has never been any doubting the prowess of Novak Djokovic when it comes to clay, even though his first Major and first Masters came on the tour’s hard courts.

Take the Rome Masters, where he won the first of four titles from seven finals in 2008. In Madrid, he has won twice. And then there is Monte-Carlo, his home town, where he is also a two-time champion.

What’s more, Djokovic has six times beaten perhaps the greatest clay-courter of the Open era, Rafael Nadal, in those very Masters. But just like Roger Federer before him, it was the French Open that eluded the Serb year after year, despite winning multiple titles at the other three Majors.

Six times the Spaniard stopped him at Roland Garros, and when Djokovic did finally defeat Nadal on that hallowed clay, in 2015, he came up against a blistering Stan Wawrinka in the final.

Altogether, four semi-finals and three finals had not yielded the title—until last year.

His victory marked 18 months of dominance across all the surfaces. Aside from that Wawrinka final in Paris in 2015, Djokovic had won six straight Majors, the World Tour Finals, and six Masters from a sweep of eight finals. He led the rankings by a country mile, but the physical and emotional toll, particularly after completing the Grand Slam circle, was starting to show.

Unexpected losses together with wrist and elbow problems suggested both fatigue and loss of confidence through the remainder of 2016, and culminated in conceding the No1 ranking to Andy Murray in his last match of the year. And those same inconsistencies followed him into 2017, now without coach Boris Becker.

An early loss in Australia, two defeats to Nick Kyrgios, and withdrawal from Miami opened the gap between Murray and Djokovic, and with the return to clay, he faced a barrage of points to defend.

The good news was that his elbow seemed to have healed, as he told ATPWorldTour.com:

“The elbow is fine now. I’ve been training for the past couple of weeks, playing Davis Cup and making the transition to clay that’s very demanding for the body. I was sceptical how my elbow would react to the heavy balls on clay, but it’s been good so far.”

But it was important to hit the ground running, and running is what he was sure to do against his first opponent, 32-year-old Gilles Simon.

The Frenchman, a former top-10 player but currently down as 32, is always a challenge, as their last match bore witness: a fourth-round five-setter at last year’s Australian Open that took Djokovic over four and a half hours to win. However, Simon had won only one of their previous 11 matches, their first a decade before.

Djokovic had the advantage of opening serve, but three uncharacteristic errors spoke of tension, as did going to the drop shot—and losing it—very early. Simon broke, but he in turn faced immediate break-back points, and Djokovic angled to the lines to level, 1-1.

Sure enough, Djokovic was quickly into his stride, having already worked his way into the tempo and pace of these elegant courts in a doubles victory over this same opponent.

By the third game, Djokovic was in full flow, and Simon guilty too often of trying to play baseline chess with the master of such tactics. They stood all square until the eighth game, when Djokovic beat Simon into submission with relentless penetration and variety of angle. A quick break, and it was the work of moments to serve out the set, 6-3.

With an early break in the second set, Djokovic seemed to be on his way, but after a weak fourth game and two wayward forehands, Simon had the break back, 2-2.

Djokovic then earned four more break chances in the fifth game but could not convert, and all at once faced a break point of his own. He fought it off with his first release of tension, a huge roar at his box, but this was becoming a real test of long and punishing rallies, and Simon got another bite of the cherry to break, 4-2.

The opening rally of the seventh game was metronomic and lung busting, a 40-stroke exchange that ended with two balls onto each man’s baseline. If Djokovic wanted a physical test, he had it. Simon was doing what he does best—running, anticipating and hitting cleanly off both wings. It drew too many forehand errors from Djokovic and earned the Frenchman the set, 6-3.

The third set continued the enthralling tennis, with Simon throwing in some stunning volleys and then a lob winner to break in the fifth. His lead was short-lived as Djokovic played with laser-like precision to break back.

The crowd grew increasingly vocal as they sensed a possible win for the Frenchman born just down the coast in Nice, and they were rewarded with a break after Djokovic received a time violation and then smashed an easy overhead wide.

Simon would serve for the match, but his arm was tight, and he was again broken back, 5-5. Djokovic produced some of his best baseline shot-making to grab back the lead, and one last tired service game from Simon, plus a broken string, and he was beaten: Djokovic had edged the win, 7-5, after more than two and a half hours, but with almost twice as many errors as winners.

So there is work to do, and the work-out he was given by Simon may pave the way for more confident and consistent tennis in his next match, which will bring either Karen Khachanov or Pablo Carreno Busta.

Djokovic’s biggest opponents, Nadal and Murray, will play their openers on Wednesday against Kyle Edmund and Gilles Muller respectively, but one big seed is out. No7 Jo-Wilfried Tsonga lost to Adrian Mannarino, who had played two qualifying and a first-round match already, played some inspired tennis to down fellow Frenchman, 6-7(3), 6-2, 6-3. He will next face either No11 seed, Lukas Pouille or Paolo Lorenzi.

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