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  • French Open, Day Eight

Dismiss Djokovic at your peril

ESPN staff
June 3, 2012
Novak Djokovic recovered from two sets down to beat Andreas Seppi © PA Photos
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Rafael Nadal looked set to receive the ideal birthday present on Sunday - until Novak Djokovic produced a stirring fightback to beat Andreas Seppi in five sets at the French Open.

When it looked like Djokovic was heading out of the tournament, having lost the first two sets to Seppi, organisers could have been forgiven for putting the Spaniard's name on the trophy for a seventh time.

Yes, Roger Federer, Andy Murray and David Ferrer were still alive, but Djokovic is the one who really looks capable of dethroning the King of Clay at his favourite event, having beaten Nadal in all of their ATP Tour meetings during 2011.

That said, even though Djokovic is still alive at Roland Garros, few will be tipping him for victory after he laboured past the 22nd seed on Sunday. However, one dodgy day does not completely shatter Djokovic's chances of becoming the first man since Rod Laver in 1969 to hold all the grand slam titles simultaneously.

There were enough mitigating circumstances for Djokovic to easily erase the memory of a harrowing match. Firstly, the display of Seppi, who for the first two sets played in a manner that would have flattened pretty much anyone - other than Nadal perhaps. The Italian, surely producing a career-best performance, was impenetrable in defence and lethal in attack, with the adrenaline of the big stage carrying him to previously unvisited heights. In short, he wasn't playing like the 22nd seed.

Secondly, the conditions didn't help Djokovic. The weather in Paris was significantly worse than it had been over the first week, with the gusts billowing across the court proving a real leveller. Djokovic, a naturally aggressive player, did not trust himself to send the ball arrowing towards the corners, for fear that the wind would carry the ball a little too far and into the no-go zone.

So he became risk-averse, and focused instead on keeping the ball in play - a strategy that nullified his devastating attacking instincts. With uncertainty rattling around Djokovic's mind, caused by being forced to adapt from his natural game, he was always going to be slightly less than 100%.

And these were far from typical conditions for both the tournament and clay-court tennis in general, so it's unlikely - although not impossible, admittedly - that Djokovic is going to find himself in the same circumstances again. No massive cause for worry.

With the court damp, Djokovic struggled with his movement, either misjudging the length of his slide or finding his footwork betraying him just when he was about to spring off from a standing start. It was reminiscent of how he toiled on the blue clay in Madrid recently, but is far from a trend in his game. After almost every point in the first two sets he was hammering his racket against the soles of his shoes, which can only have been a preoccupying annoyance.

All in all, it was just an off day for the Serb, and not indicative of a deeper slump or a general struggle on clay. When football teams play poorly and still manage to triumph, it is perceived as a "mark of champions" - and it should be the same way in tennis.

The biggest concern is how much a four-hour epic will have taken out of his energy banks, although often the momentum generated by time on court can offset any of the damaging effects of fatigue.

So let's not write Djokovic off. He must improve but, despite struggles against Seppi, there's no reason to suspect he won't.

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