French Open 2018

French Open 2018: Novak Djokovic undecided about grass season after tough Paris loss

Novak Djokovic admits he is unsure whether he will play in the forthcoming grass season after losing at the French Open to Marco Cecchinato

Novak Djokovic
Novak Djokovic in clay-court action Photo: Marianne Bevis

In a swift, hastily-called press conference following his unexpected loss to the unseeded No72-ranked Marco Cecchinato, a downcast Novak Djokovic was unable to confirm his plans for the forthcoming grass season.

In one of the smaller rooms in the media centre at Roland Garros, with no microphones and no transcription, he was asked when he would begin preparation for the grass season. He replied:

“I don’t know if I’m going to play on grass… I really don’t know. I just came from the court, so I really don’t know.”

Cecchinato has produced one of the stories of this year’s tournament, and in his debut playing of the French Open, he first came back from two sets down to beat Marius Copil 10-8 in the fifth set, then beat a lucky loser, and began to upset the seedings with wins over No1 Pablo Carreno Busta and No8 David Goffin.

An unconventional player with enormous variety and flair, the 25-year-old Italian cut a swathe through his opponents with a big one-handed backhand, frequent drop shots, slice and angle, and great defence.

But few expected him to beat Djokovic, whose return to form after months off the tour with an elbow injury, was borne out first by reaching the semi-finals in Rome and then making his 12th French Open quarter-final, his 40th Major quarter-final overall, and with an eye on a ninth French semi.

But the Italian burst from the blocks on Suzanne Lenglen court, breaking immediately and taking a 4-1 lead. Djokovic called for the trainer to manipulate his right shoulder, and he held serve for the rest of the set, but Cecchinato served it out, 6-3, in just 35 minutes.

Djokovic took more treatment, and again went down a break in the second set, but levelled, and the rallies grew longer and more demanding. Both players had edgy moments, both got warnings for coaching, but Cecchinato showed great grit to hold off break points to take the set to a tie-breaker. Once there, the Italian sealed it, 7-6(4), with a smash.

But Djokovic came back strong, swept the third set with three breaks, 6-1—and then needed massage to his right calf. Even so, Djokovic again broke to take a strong lead, 5-2, with Cecchinato having to defend more break points along the way. But the Italian levelled was not done, broke back, and levelled. It went to another tie-break.

The fourth set would be a marathon affair, an hour and a quarter, with repeated chances on both sides, each set point and match point drawing extraordinary efforts and touch.

Finally, Cecchinato closed it out on his fourth match point with a return-of-serve backhand winner, appropriate given the effectiveness of that shot in breaking the defences of Djokovic through the match, and he fell to the court in joy.

For Djokovic, though, this was clearly a bitter loss: He fulfilled his media obligations with his face downcast, his hands running repeatedly through his hair.

Of his opponent and his own performance, he was forthright.

“I mean, he played amazing and credit to him. Congrats for a great performance. He came out very well. I struggled from the beginning. Unfortunately, it took me time to get well, and struggled with a little injury, as well, at the beginning. And after, when I warmed up, it was better.

“But, yeah, just a pity that I couldn’t capitalize on the chances in the 4-1 in the fourth set and some break points that I thought I had in there, but he came back and credit to him.”

Asked about his physical problems, he would not elaborate:

“Just couple of things, but nothing major, really. I don’t want to talk about that.”

And his mood sank with his head: He wanted nothing more than to be somewhere else.

Asked again about his plans for grass, he reiterated:

“I don’t know. I don’t know what I’m going to do… Sorry, guys, I can’t give you that answer.”

He had, without a doubt, taken this loss particularly hard. Asked if there was a reason for that, he expanded a little:

“Any defeat is difficult in the Grand Slams, especially the one that came from months of build-up. And I thought I had a great chance to get at least a step further, but it wasn’t to be. That’s the way it is.”

As for regrouping:

“I’m just not thinking about tennis at the moment.”

Two Serbian questions, batted back just as briefly, and he had had enough: He left the room.

It left many unanswered questions, the biggest one concerning his forthcoming plans. Last year, he won in Eastbourne, a 250 pointer, and then made the quarters of Wimbledon. He was ranked No4 at the time: If he does opt out of the grass season, he may find himself edging towards No40.

Hard decisions, then, for the man who exactly two years ago became that rare tennis champion, holding all four Majors at the same time.

The counter to Djokovic’s disappointment, of course, was Cecchinato’s tear-stained joy. By the time he came to press, an hour later, he could not take the huge smile from his face. He beamed:

“I think it’s changed the life. So after Roland Garros, I need some rest and to realise the moment, and we will see my life.”

Such is the impact, though, that he will likely be seeded for Wimbledon, where he has played and lost just one match before. He countered:

“Is good for my opponent in Wimbledon… So I can prepare the Wimbledon better from last year. And we will see. [Smiling] Why can I not win also the match in grass?”

And so plays out the unforgiving, no-draws, win-or-lose sport of tennis. It is joyous, and it is brutal.

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