Wednesday 21 February 2018

French Open: Misfiring Djokovic maintains old order after scare

Simon Briggs in Paris

Appropriately enough for the city it was in, the spirit of revolution was alive in the 16th arrondissement yesterday, as a series of unheralded names rose up to challenge the aristocracy of tennis.

On the women's side, Domenika Cibulkova succeeded in bringing the guillotine down on world No 1 Victoria Azarenka. On the men's, Novak Djokovic and Roger Federer both faced unruly opponents, but eventually survived to play another day. That's the difference between three sets and five: the longer the match goes on for, the more the natural order reasserts itself.

This outbreak of lese-majeste started with Andreas Seppi, an Italian clay-court specialist who has been putting together a few eye-catching wins of late. Drawn against Djokovic on Court Philippe Chatrier, Seppi showed little respect for his opponent, defying tricky conditions to sprint to a two-set lead.

On a blustery day in Paris, the crosswind blowing across the court actually suited Seppi. He hits his backhand down the line with one of the shortest swings in tennis -- a little double-fisted punch, like a fisherman stunning his catch. When the ball is moving around unpredictably, a simple game is an effective game, and Djokovic's more ambitious groundstrokes kept missing their mark.

Wearing a white baseball cap over his long, blondish hair, Seppi looked and played a little like Jim Courier, the American who won this tournament twice in the early 1990s. Should Djokovic lift the Coupe de Mousquetaires this year, he will become the first man since Courier to claim the Australian and French Opens in the same season. But as we move into the quarter-finals, he will need to come out with more fire in his racket than he did yesterday.

"It was one of those days where nothing is working," said Djokovic, after clawing his way back from the brink to complete a 4-6 6-7 6-3 7-5 6-3 win. "I wasn't managing to get into the rhythm. I had flashes, positive flashes where I was winning games in a row, and I felt that I actually can hit it. But most of the match I was defensive."

Even when Seppi won the second-set tie-break, few really expected him to go on to victory. Over the last 18 months Djokovic has shown remarkable stamina and determination. Anyone who finds themselves contesting a fifth set against him might as well stop and shake hands: he has won his last six full-length matches, dating back two years.

Seppi was never going to stand in his way once the adrenaline had kicked in, and Djokovic's heavy top-spun forehand started to dictate the points.

Even so, the world No 1 was well aware that a count of 77 unforced errors was unacceptable for this stage of a major tournament.

Meanwhile, on Court Suzanne Lenglen, Djokovic's likely semi-final opponent Federer was enduring a similarly bumpy ride against David Goffin, the world No 109 from Belgium.

Goffin is a skinny and fresh-faced 21-year-old who might have been mistaken for a ball-boy when he walked onto the court. Remarkably, he had lost to Joao Sousa of Portugal, in the final round of qualifying, only to be reprieved as a "lucky loser" when Gael Monfils pulled out through injury.

Goffin may look incongruous as a top-level sportsman, standing barely 5' 11'' and weighing just 11 stone. But he is clearly gifted, with an ability to take the ball early that has earned comparisons with Andre Agassi. He stole the first set with some audacious play, and later produced one absurdly delicate lob-and-volley combination that drew a standing ovation.

After coming back to win 5-7 7-5 6-2 6-4 Federer gave his young opponent a fatherly pat on the head.

Goffin has admitted he used to have posters of Federer on his bedroom wall, a fact that his former idol seemed to find amusing. "I'm not used to playing against an opponent who loves me or loves the way I play," he said. "But I was aware that it had to happen someday, because it happened to me when I played against (Pete) Sampras or Agassi. At the end, we did give each other a hug," Federer added. "Like men." (© Daily Telegraph, London)

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