By Martyn Herman
LONDON (Reuters) – Far from being a fading force, 12-times grand slam champion Novak Djokovic has shown signs that he is emerging from the toughest spell of his career and is ready for a fresh start ahead of next week’s French Open.
The 31-year-old will be seeded down at around 20 for the claycourt slam in Paris, but there will be a few players anxiously eyeing the drawsheet hoping the 2016 champion is not in their vicinity.
Last week in Rome Djokovic went toe-to-toe with a rampant Rafael Nadal and though he lost their semi-final 7-6 6-3 the level of tennis he produced in an absorbing contest was much closer to what we have come to expect from the Serb.
If they are in opposite halves of the draw it would not be too much of a stretch of the imagination to imagine the same duo battling for the Roland Garros title on June 10.
“He’s coming back for sure, if this slam wasn’t called the French Open I think you would have to put him up amongst the seven or eight favourites,” three-times champion Mats Wilander, who will follow Djokovic’s progress as part of the Eurosport coverage team, told Reuters.
“Even at the French, (he has a chance), he played very well against Nadal in Rome. Obviously it’s easier to play when you have nothing to lose and everything to win in one way, but technically he is back where he was, or very close.”
A few months ago Djokovic could barely register a win.
His return from the elbow injury that ended his 2017 season after Wimbledon and then flared up again at the Australian Open was more difficult than expected.
At Indian Wells, in his first match after losing to Chung Hyeon in the fourth round of the Australian Open, he slumped to defeat against 109th-ranked Japanese Taro Daniel.
“It felt like first match I ever played on the tour. Very weird,” was his post-match reaction, admitting that he was battling himself physically and mentally.
When he lost to Frenchman Benoit Paire in the Miami first round a week later he said it was “impossible” to play the kind of tennis that made him all but untouchable in 2015 when he was agonisingly close to a calendar year grand slam.
He split with coach Andre Agassi two months ago and in April parted company with another member of the team, Radek Stepanek.
Since then Djokovic has found salvation in Slovak Marian Vajda, the coach who launched him on the path to greatness and was his right-hand man from 2006-17 before taking a back seat.
The early signs are encouraging and, while still not back to his authoritative best, the confidence is returning and, crucially, Djokovic appears fully motivated.
Wilander says Djokovic can approach the rest of the year as a new beginning.
“I think his career is like starting over,” Wilander said. “He is pretty much in the same situation now as he was when he was 17, 18, 19 before he won his first major. He is 31 but he is starting over again.
“He is trying to find his way on the court in terms of intensity. I think working again with Vajda is a great move. I think he has always made good moves, even though (the partnership with) Andre didn’t last he learned from the all.”
Wilander expects Djokovic to progress into the second week, which is where his true level will become apparent.
“I think mentally he will play smart matches until it’s crunch time,” he said. “Then it’s more about how much is he willing to suffer emotionally.”
(Reporting by Martyn Herman)