• Former champion Stan Wawrinka wins first eight games but loses match to Marco Cecchinato
• No8 seed Karen Khachanov and No7 seed Marin Cilic also fall at first hurdle
It was not pretty, it was not easy, and it was not predictable, but it notched up a 200th clay-court match-win for the world No1 Novak Djokovic.
However, it could have been very different, as the man who cannot be overtaken at the top of the ranks in the foreseeable future took on world No40 Philipp Kohlschreiber, though that ranking belies the talent of the elegant 35-year-old German who has won five clay titles and reached a further six finals in his long career.
But it was their last meeting, last month, that made this opening challenge for Djokovic particularly intriguing. For Kohlschreiber had made a dent in Djokovic’s tennis before: Twice in Masters events, he had taken the Serb to three sets. But he beat the top seed with relative ease in Indian Wells, 6-4, 6-4—and had also, incidentally, taken the first set from Roger Federer in Dubai just weeks before that.
Djokovic, of course, has to take second seat to Rafael Nadal when it comes to clay record-making. Yet although the Spaniard is competing in Monte-Carlo for this 12th title, and owns 23 clay Masters titles, Djokovic has more than proved his worth on this surface: eight of his 13 clay titles have come at Masters level. Two of those victories were in this tournament, the one he can call ‘home’ for much of the year, and he reached two further finals along the way.
In his opening contest, he was targeting his 200th match-win on the red stuff, but he came perilously close to keeping 199 by his name for a couple of extra weeks.
Kohlschreiber had break chances in the fifth and seventh games, on both occasions going for too much into an open court. He looked suitably rueful, and sure enough, it was then he who was broken, and Djokovic served out the set, 6-3.
That the German had managed to work several chances while his first serve languished at just 35 percent was as much a comment on Djokovic’s tennis as on Kohlschreiber’s. The top seed was struggling for consistency in his accuracy, and the frustration was palpable.
That frustration boiled over in the second set, during a succession of breaks by both players, and his racket took the punishment. Three times Djokovic came back from a break down, but at 4-5, he was broken for the fourth time, and the German levelled the match 6-4.
However, even with his double faults climbing to a final tally of eight in the third set, his first serve did begin to reap rewards. He dropped only five points out of 25, and rode an immediate break in the first game all the way to the last, serving out No200, 6-4, after a patchy two hours 36 minutes.
It so happens that one milestone also brought another: his 850th career match-win, a reminder of just was a force he is on the tennis stage. Only seven other men in the Open era have won more, with just three of them reaching more than 1,000:
· Jimmy Connors 1,256
· Roger Federer 1,198
· Ivan Lendl 1,068
Djokovic is now only 20 wins short of Agassi, a target that looks likely to pass by the summer.
And after his less than convincing opening match, Djokovic was nevertheless pragmatic about his form.
“I lost my serve I think four games in a row in the second set, and that hasn’t happened too many times in my life. I’m not a big server, but still, that’s quite a lot.
“I had ups and downs and in a way felt a bit rusty on the court. I had a tough opponent, of course. Philipp beat me in Indian Wells. It was a match that happened less than a month ago, so of course it was in the back of my mind a bit. I thought I should have maybe stepped in and played a bit more aggressive in the second set, but credit to him for mixing up the pace and playing well.
“I’ll take this win. Hopefully I can play slightly better in the next round, because if I want to go deep in the tournament, I definitely have to up my game.”
He saw the advantage of a tough match early in his clay build-up. After all, there are two more Masters in Madrid and Rome to come, concluded by his attempt to win a second French Open.
“In a way, it’s good I got to spend two-and-a-half hours on the court in my first match in the clay court season. This surface is very demanding physically. Tactically, as well, you have to construct the point, be more patient, put more spin into the ball, which at times maybe from the backhand side is not as natural. I like to take the ball early, maybe flat. So those are the little things that you have to get used to and work on…[And] my serve wasn’t working today.”
“I have to be comfortable with the level that I’m playing at the moment… and try and improve it. Is this the best that I have played on clay? No. I mean, far from that. But at the same time, it’s OK. It’s a building process, and I just have to trust the journey on getting to that desired level. Whether it’s going to happen later this week or not, I don’t know… I will take one day at a time.”
He will next play either Diego Schwartzman—and the 24-ranked Argentine took him to five sets in their last meeting, the third round of Roland Garros in 2017—or Taylor Fritz.
No11 seed Marco Cecchinato came back from losing the first eight games of the match to beat former Monte-Carlo champion Stan Wawrinka, 0-6, 7-5, 6-3. The Italian has won three titles on clay in the past 12 months, and also beat Djokovic en route to the French Open semis last year.
He will meet Guido Pella, who put out No7 seed Marin Cilic, in a rematch of their epic five-set Wimbledon meeting last year, 6-3, 5-7, 6-1. Argentine Pella improved to 13-3 on clay this year after winning in Rio and reaching the final in Cordoba in February.
No8 seed Karen Khachanov also fell at the first hurdle to Monte-Carlo qualifier Lorenzo Sonego,7-6(4), 6-4. The 23-year-old Italian will next face Cameron Norrie or Marton Fucsovics.
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BIOGRAPHY: Ethan Hazard
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