IT was a day of thunder and tears on the tennis courts of Monte Carlo. Novak Djokovic wept into his towel when news reached him, during his morning practice session, that his grandfather had died.
Vladimir Djokovic had been an influential figure in his grandson’s life. He owned the family restaurant in the Serbian ski resort of Mount Kopaonik, as well as the apartment block in Belgrade where the whole clan used to shelter when the NATO bombers flew over.
Most importantly, in the long run, it was Vladimir who built the tennis courts where Novak and his brothers, Marko and Djordje, who are also high-level players, honed their games.
Although the bereavement affected Djokovic deeply, he was determined to fulfil his commitments on court on Thursday.
As a former ski instructor, Vladimir was part of the family’s strong sporting heritage, and would surely have wanted the match to go ahead. Which it did, despite the terrible news, and despite the thundery showers that interrupted play four times during the day.
Djokovic’s opponent on Thursday was Alexandr Dolgopolov, a hard man to subdue at the best of times; and especially so when you find yourself preparing for your first serve of the match by wiping a tear from your eye, as Djokovic did on Thursday.
The opening set was almost uncomfortable to watch, for Djokovic was so far from being himself. Normally a superb judge of attacking options, he came out swiping at the ball as if blaming it for what had just happened.
A couple of enormous forehands were winners, but plenty more flew long, and Dolgopolov had the first set 6-2.
That seemed to do the trick for Djokovic’s concentration. The fog cleared from his eyes and he romped through the second set 6-1.
The match might have been over in a jiffy had it not been for the rain that forced the players off the court. Once they returned, Djokovic finished things off 6-4 in the decider.
He wept again at the end of the match, and could not bring himself to speak to the on-court interviewer.
“Novak Djokovic just felt totally exhausted physically, mentally and emotionally,” the ATP said in a statement. “We ask for understanding.”
If Djokovic endured a horrible day, then so too did Julien Benneteau, Andy Murray's opponent on Thursday, who fears he may now miss the Olympics after fracturing his elbow in a fall at the back of the court.
He was the second casualty of Court Central this week, after Juan Monaco had fallen in the same spot on Tuesday and retired with a sprained ankle.
Benneteau’s accident brought a premature end to a hard-fought match which had taken 69 minutes just to reach 5-5 in the opening set.
He had been pressing hard and mixing up his booming groundstrokes with a well-disguised drop shot, which drew curses from Murray every time he had to sprint forward to the net.
“He was taking the ball very early and making me do a lot of running,” Murray said afterwards. “It was unfortunate for it to end that way.”
Murray will play Tomas Berdych in the quarter-finals on Friday, while Djokovic faces the Dutchman Robin Haase. And Rafael Nadal also won through in double-quick time last night: 6-1, 6-1 over Mikhail Kukushkin.