French Open 2018

French Open 2018: Novak Djokovic makes statement of intent with 200th clay win and 40th Major QF

Novak Djokovic beats Fernando Verdasco to reach the quarter-finals of the French Open in Paris

Novak Djokovic
Novak Djokovic is through to the quarter-finals in Paris Photo: Marianne Bevis

Yes, Novak Djokovic entered Roland Garros at his lowest ranking in a very long time—since 2006 in fact—but with good reason.

The former world No1 and 12-time Major champion, who completed his Grand Slam in Paris in 2016, had endured injury woes for much of last year, and did not play after Wimbledon. He made early attempts to return in 2018, but resorted to minor elbow surgery.

He needed more time to regain his confidence and physical endurance than anticipated. But come the clay, he began to build some of his form, some of his intensity, and by the time he faced Rafael Nadal in the semis of the Rome Masters, he had beaten Kei Nishikori twice.

Even so, he entered Roland Garros ranked at an uncharacteristic 22, but his record in Paris was formidable. He had not fallen short of the quarters since 2009, had reached four finals and won one of them.

He was bidding, in fact, to reach his 12th French quarter-final, which would set a record in the Open era—though could be matched should Nadal do the same come Monday.

He was looking for his 200th tour-level clay match-win, and his 40th Major quarter-final—behind only Roger Federer and Jimmy Connors.

But more important than all that, surely, was for Djokovic to reassert himself not just at the French Open but among his peers on the tour. The process was well under way, and boosted by reuniting with the old coaching team that had been disbanded a year ago.

In Paris, a couple of straightforward opening rounds was followed by a far more significant test, the resilient Spaniard and No13 seed Roberto Bautista Agut. Djokovic passed with flying colours through a couple of tie-breakers—guaranteed to lift any player’s confidence—and summed up his satisfaction thus:

“For me, not having so many matches in the last period, this is great. Of course I don’t want to play four, five hours every match, but I think it was a great test. I had to earn my victory. Last set was actually the best set that I have played so far in the tournament. I don’t feel too exhausted. That’s the good news. I’m just looking forward to next challenge.”

Ominous signs, then, for the rest of his half of the draw, even if three of them were top-10 players with ample reason to feel confident on clay this season: No2 Sascha Zverev, No7 Dominic Thiem, and No8 David Goffin.

The most ominous sign was for his fourth-round opponent, 34-year-old No30 seed Fernando Verdasco. He lagged Djokovic 10-4 in their head-to-head, and had lost their last five matches. If there was a glimmer of hope, Verdasco’s last wins, two on the bounce, had come on clay. However, his record at Roland Garros was in stark contrast to Djokovic: The Spaniard was aiming to reach his first quarter-final in Paris on his 15th appearance.

Djokovic held serve quickly, but a succession of deuces and break points on Verdasco’s side extended the clock to well over a quarter of an hour. He survived, though, and then meted out the same treatment to Djokovic, but made two woeful errors on break points and the Serb held for 2-1. The clock read half an hour, and Djokovic saluted the crowd in celebration.

Finally, the Serb did get the breakthrough, 3-1, and with his range and accuracy improving by the game, he served out the set 5-3 in an hour. In truth, after his early resistance, Verdasco had looked out of the set, unable to wrong-foot his opponent, nor power through the court, nor mix things up tactically.

The second set unfolded in a not dissimilar fashion, again with Djokovic making the early strike in the opening game, and Verdasco making too many errors as he went for broke on his big forehand and attempted too many inadequate drop shots against the super-quick Serb.

The Spaniard did manage to draw level again, 3-3, only to be immediately broken again, and the draining physicality across the baseline was taking a toll: Verdasco flexed his calf and ankle, serving to save the set at 3-5. He did so, took some medical treatment on his foot, but could not prevent Djokovic from serving out the set, 6-4, and to love.

An immediate break again in the third and Djokovic was as good as home and dry. Sure enough, in half the time it took to win the first set, he had knocked off two highly significant milestones, 6-2—those 200 clay wins and that 40th Major quarter-final.

And not for him the expected opponent in the next round.

For Goffin, there were high hopes, as there were last year before a slip on the court covers ended his promising campaign in Paris and then the entire grass season.

Back on track this year, he then suffered another accident in Rotterdam, a ball in the eye, and he did not begin to get back into form until the clay swing. He picked up some decent scalps in Monte-Carlo and Rome, too, where he also got the better of his latest opponent at Roland Garros, Marco Cecchinato.

The Italian, ranked 72, won his first title this year, on the clay of Budapest, via qualifying, and was the unexpected victor over Pablo Carreno Busta, Paris’s No10 seed. But Goffin, despite a gruelling third-round five-set win over Gael Monfils, and coming back from two sets down in his opener against Robin Haase, was favoured to advance to his second quarter-final at Roland Garros.

It was, in the event, not to be, as the unseeded Cecchinato edged the first set, 7-5. Goffin nabbed the second set, but all was not well. A medical time out preluded a 0-6 rout in the third set, as the Belgian stretched out his ankle. For a man so fleet of foot and dependent on his movement, this was not a good sign, though he did not throw in the towel.

And there was a glimmer of hope for his many fans when he got a break early in the fourth set, but Cecchinato levelled again, broke with a handful of crisp winners, while Goffin notched up 51 errors. It was done in two and a half hours, 6-3.

The Italian could barely contain his joy, and rightly so. He had looked on the verge of defeat in the opening round after losing the first two sets to Bernard Tomic. He finally won, 10-8 in the fifth—his first ever Major match-win.

As he put it: “I was two sets to love down in my first match. Now I will play the quarter-finals. I beat David, one of the best players in the world, it’s a dream for me. And for me it’s a pleasure to play Novak in Roland Garros. Now I need to think about this moment because it’s unbelievable for me.”

With that, he took the cheers. But Tuesday, and the fast-rising former champion Djokovic, will be upon him in the blink of an eye.

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