Inclement weather put him on pause—twice. It just seems nothing can stop Novak Djokovic's machine-like domination of the clay-court season for long.
Djokovic earned his 33rd straight first-round victory in a Grand Slam on Monday, toppling unseeded Joao Sousa 6-1, 6-2, 6-4 at the French Open. The second-seeded Serb played 110 minutes of match time, which doesn't include a roughly hour-long wait caused by rain in the first set.
The break mattered little to Djokovic, who overpowered Sousa with his serve and a series of hard-driving returns. Though it is statistically his worst Grand Slam, Djokovic has never lost a Round 1 match at Roland Garros as a professional.
Sousa was not about to be the first. He was, however, a far more formidable opponent than the final line suggested. Unintimidated by the former world No. 1, Sousa fought admirably in his first serve and did not fold when Djokovic forced him into silly mistakes.
The 25-year-old Portuguese, who made the third round at last year's U.S. Open, was particularly engaged after the rain delay—which perhaps allowed his nerves to calm a bit. Twice he held serve to take a 2-1 lead in the second set before Djokovic took control of the set—and, by proxy, of the match.
Djokovic swept the next four games, the last of which was delayed by another short rain delay, to win the second set 6-2. It was less convincing than Sousa's two spot, but it highlighted Djokovic's ability to take over a match with both his serve and return. The world No. 2 won 83 percent of his first serves in the set and at different points crept near the 200 kmh mark.
The third set largely held to form. Sousa pushed Djokovic to near his breaking point, and Djokovic responded by drubbing all hope just in time; the final game tally serves as a poor representation of the contest's competitiveness.
Djokovic, who thrives when he's in rhythm, never seemed at his peak. With the rain stopped and Djokovic eager to finish off the match before another delay, he tried to kick it into high gear, only to falter. Sousa battled back to win two break points in the third set before Djokovic closed it out 6-4.
Christopher Clarey of The New York Times pointed out there was little reason to complain about the up-and-down end:
Overall, Sousa failed on seven of his 10 break-point opportunities and made 23 unforced errors. Djokovic was sloppy himself at points (33 unforced errors), but atoned for his mistakes with 40 winners and a propensity for clutch shots.
Djokovic might be on his way to his best clay-court season of his career. Monday's win was his sixth straight and he is 8-1 on the surface this season. Djokovic also got over an important hump at the Italian Open—earning a win over Rafael Nadal on his beloved surface.
The red-hot start to some has made Djokovic the favorite or at least the co-favorite heading into Paris. The French is the only Grand Slam he's failed to win, and his lone finals appearance came in 2012. Having at least made the semis in each of the last three years, though, Djokovic seems to be inching ever closer to finding his edge.
"Knowing that I have gotten closer and closer each year to the title gives me enough reason to be confident for the start of this year," Djokovic said, per an ESPN report.
For at least the first few rounds, Djokovic should have little trouble boosting his confidence more. Frenchman Jeremy Chardy awaits in Round 2, a matchup that should in many ways mirror Monday's outcome.
Chardy has attempted to take down Djokovic in their eight previous contests. Each matchup has resulted in a straight-sets win for the Serb. Djokovic has only played Chardy on clay once, but it was a 6-1, 6-1 romp in Rome. Barring an injury, there is little reason to Chardy has improved enough to be much of a test.
Nor should most players in his bottom bracket. Jo-Wilfried Tsonga and Milos Raonic are the most difficult potential opponents standing in his way before the semifinals. Djokovic has turned the tables on Tsonga in their career head-to-head after the latter got a good start, while Raonic has lost both his career attempts at Djokovic. Both losses were on clay.
The biggest challenges for Djokovic are coming in the semis, where Roger Federer could await, and the finals, with Nadal obviously favored to come out of his bracket. Nadal has lost four in a row to Djokovic, but has won the last four and eight of the last nine French Opens. He's an industry on clay.
For his career, Djokovic holds a 2-15 clay-court record against Nadal. It would mean bucking essentially every historical trend there is on record.
Djokovic won't be able to do that if he plays the way he did Monday. But the early rounds are about working out the kinks. Given the way he's performed so far in 2014, odds are he'll be humming along just fine when it counts.
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