Novak Djokovic loses cool but not match at French Open
Novak Djokovic lost his cool at the French Open on Friday but crucially for the Serb, not his third-round match or compassion.
When the 12-time grand slam winner beat a grieving Roberto Bautista Agut 6-4 6-7 (6-8) 7-6 (7-4) 6-2 in gray, wet conditions in Paris that eventually truncated proceedings, it marked a continuation of the momentum Djokovic gained in reaching the semifinals of the Rome Masters last month. Bautista Agut’s mother died suddenly late last month.
Meanwhile, second-seed Alexander Zverev survived for the second straight round by fending off a match point against 26th-seed Damir Dzumhur, 6-2 3-6 4-6 7-6 (7-3) 7-5. In collecting a maiden top-50 win at a grand slam, it was a hurdle overcome for the much hyped German.
One more win and the 21-year-old reaches a first grand slam quarterfinal.
But women’s fourth seed Elina Svitolina was upset by Mihaela Buzarnescu 6-3 7-5.
Make that Dr. Buzarnescu. The Romanian earned a doctorate in Physical Education and Sport largely when she was out of the game with a knee injury. She now sits at 33rd in the rankings after beginning 2017 at 540th, a whopping ascent.
Bautista Agut is a fine competitor who makes opponents dig in and also took a set off Djokovic in similar weather at the French Open in 2016, when the former world No. 1 conquered Roland Garros to land a fourth straight major.
Djokovic is hoping to return to those heady days following an elbow injury and loss of motivation and the fans in Paris are clearly on his side.
Losing his temper recently in matches has been a good sign for some onlookers — an indication that the hunger is back.
They would have liked then what Djokovic did in the second-set tiebreak: Missing a forehand at 6-6 when in control of the point, he slammed his racket into the clay several times in disgust.
“At times in my career, these kind of situations, when I would scream or throw a racket, it would kind of wake me up and help me to just kind of free myself from that pressure that is just building throughout the match, but there are times when it doesn’t help,” Djokovic told reporters. “So it’s really hard to say what’s the right thing to do.
“I’m not proud of doing that, to be honest. I don’t like doing that. But at times, it happens.”
In this instance it didn’t help Djokovic. Bautista Agut not only won the tiebreak but subsequently took a 5-3 lead in the third set. He faltered trying to serve out the set, though.
Djokovic winning a pivotal 31-shot rally at 4-5, 30-30 when his opponent failed to put away a backhand close to the net was perhaps the turning point.
He celebrated when clinching the affair in three hours, 48 minutes before partaking in a warm exchange with the 13th seed.
“I tried to give him support,” said Djokovic. “He has been through some difficult times with his family. That’s something that is really unfortunate, and for him to come to this tournament and to be able to play like this, it’s quite an effort.”
Said Bautista Agut: “My life is tennis, no? I’m used to going inside the court and forget about my real life and try to do my work, no? That’s the thing I’ve been doing since a lot of years. And, well, I have to tell you that was not easy to go on court these days…I don’t know why I could manage it.”
Last year at the French Open, American Steve Johnson competed weeks after the death of his father.
Djokovic faces another Spaniard on Sunday, Fernando Verdasco, and that probably won’t be easy, either.
Though 34, Verdasco — who upended fourth-seed Grigor Dimitrov in straight sets — remains hugely fit and knows his way around a clay court. He owns a more than respectable 3-3 record against Djokovic on clay, too.
Ousting Dimitrov was a mild upset, if one at all, given Verdasco’s clay pedigree and the Bulgarian’s grand slam struggles in Paris, where he spent significant time training in the past.
Zverev was extended to five sets Wednesday by Serb Dusan Lajovic but was even closer to exiting against Dzumhur, who was born in Sarajevo shortly after war broke out.
The Bosnian stands 5-foot-9 — which makes the 26-year-old one of the shorter players on tour — yet his court coverage, volleying and touch bamboozled the 6-foot-6 Zverev.
Dzumhur, however, crumbled serving at 6-5 in the fourth set, making four unforced errors.
Somehow he regrouped from a 4-2 deficit to lead 5-4 in the fifth. Then with Zverev staring at the match point at 30-40, the German unleashed a huge serve out wide that caught the line.
There was nothing Dzumhur could do.
But on the next point, with time on a backhand close to the net, Dzumhur erred into the net to the relief of the stranded Zverev.
“That’s the point that I will probably remember,” said Dzumhur, playing in a second straight five-setter himself.
Zverev was pleased with how his body held up but the cumulative effect may well be an issue in the fourth round against either 15th-seed Lucas Pouille of France or Karen Khachanov.
He caught a break when rain meant that match could not be finished, meaning Khachanov and Pouille must resume Saturday with the Russian ahead by two sets.
Sunday’s blockbuster in the men’s draw just might be 2014 US Open finalist Kei Nishikori meeting two-time French Open semifinalist Dominic Thiem. Nishikori thumped France’s Gilles Simon and Thiem advanced in four sets over Italian Matteo Berrettini.
Notching three career wins on clay against Rafael Nadal — including in Madrid in May to end the Mallorcan’s record set streak — the Austrian is being tipped by many to reach the final from the stacked bottom half.
“Everything is fine right now, so I cannot complain about anything,” said Thiem.
A rejuvenated Djokovic probably feels the same.