Novak Djokovic keeps spirit of big four alive as hunt for 25th Grand Slam begins

While his great rivals of yesteryear are on the verge of retiring from the game, an out-of-form Djokovic started his French Open campaign with a straight-sets win on Tuesday night

Kieran Jackson
at Roland Garros
Tuesday 28 May 2024 22:08 BST
Nadal defeated in likely French Open farewell

On Monday, as the sold-out crowd roared on Rafael Nadal in potentially his final battle on Court Philippe-Chatrier, Novak Djokovic was in an unusual position. For him, anyway. Usually, the world No 1 would be up the other end, walloping back another backhand or sprinting to a whipped Nadal forehand. But not this year and, by the end of 2024, Djokovic is likely to be the final member of the “big four” standing.

The Serb was in the stands during Nadal’s loss to Alexander Zverev – alongside the likes of Carlos Alcaraz and Iga Swiatek – watching the end of an era with the 14-time champion’s likely farewell from the French Open.

But last night, the world No 1 was back in familiar territory: winning at a Grand Slam.

He didn’t have it all his own way, particularly in a tight second-set, but the defending champion emerged victorious in a boisterous atmosphere under the lights against French wild card Pierre-Hugues Herbert, 6-4, 7-6(3), 6-4. And given his season so far, Djokovic will be satisfied with his level against a player who rose to the night-time stage.

Djokovic has been out-of-form this year. Without a title, the Serb even took up a late entry to the warm-up tournament in Geneva last week and still couldn’t claim some silverware as he lost in the semi-finals. The 37-year-old, in his pre-tournament press conference, therefore stated he had “low expectations and high hopes” as he targets a 25th Grand Slam over the Paris fortnight.

Reminder: that would be the most singles majors won by anyone, male or female.

“Anything but a title for me is not satisfactory, it always has been like that,” Djokovic added. “I know it might sound arrogant, but I have the career that backs it up.

“In the Grand Slams I normally play the best tennis, at least I aim always to play the best tennis, and I was able to do that for most of my career, so that’s the goal.”

His best tennis has most certainly deserted him since he won last year’s end-of-season finals in Turin. After being stunned by Jannik Sinner in the semi-finals of the Australian Open, Djokovic has not even reached a final in four tournaments since, playing a streamlined schedule as he targets the big four events. It is an understandable approach. At 37, even Djokovic must temper the immense expectations of his body.

Novak Djokovic progressed to the French Open second round
Novak Djokovic progressed to the French Open second round (Getty Images)
Pierre-Hugues Herbert fought valiantly at his home major
Pierre-Hugues Herbert fought valiantly at his home major (Getty Images)

And as he began his campaign on Tuesday night, the Serb looked in full-flow. Djokovic must at least reach the semi-finals to have any chance of preserving his number one ranking and he looked a man completely focused on the task.

After claiming the first-set, he was up against an inspired opponent and the partisan home crowd in the second before – as he so often has – finding his best tennis for the tiebreak, scampering around the court as smooth as ever.

By the end, it was a trademark backhand pass down the line which effectively sealed it. It set up his first match point on Herbert’s serve and, aware he couldn’t just dolly the ball in play, the Frenchman double-faulted.

Sunday concluded with Andy Murray’s final match at this tournament. Monday saw the same scenario for Nadal, in all likelihood. With Roger Federer now long gone, Djokovic continues to keep the spirit of tennis’ big-four alive. Tuesday would not end in a similar vein.

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