Novak Djokovic: On Chasing Perfection on Philippe Chatrier

Novak Djokovic at the French Open.
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Perfection is a crazy standard to meet and no one knows it better than tennis players. Would having a Golden Set (a set won without losing a single point) come close to that? It is such a rare feat that it has only happened once before in the Men’s game. Bill Scanlon did it in 1983 at Delray Beach against Marcos Hocevar.  Simona Halep said of her domination of Serena Williams at Wimbledon in 2019 that “the final in Wimbledon (2019). I think that one; it was perfect. I actually sat down, and I tried to analyse what I did wrong or what I did less good. It doesn’t exist. That match is perfect.”

Well, we did not get any such golden sets in the third round encounter between the No.1 seed and defending champion Novak Djokovic and Aljaz Bedene. It was rather a routine straight set affair of 6-3 6-3 6-2 as Djokovic sailed past his Balkan neighbour. The match did indeed come eerily close to perfection on many levels on the Djokovic game.  Especially on serve and his forehand. Djokovic missed 1 point on serve in each of the first 2 sets. He won over a staggering 90% of the first serve points across 2 sets.

This was Bedene’s fourth encounter with Djokovic. He has now lost all 4 of them. He never managed to win a set. Despite the enormity of the situation, Bedene displayed a lot of grit to stay within touching distance of the world #1 in the first set. He saved 5 break points in the opening 2 service games alone. He summoned delicately crafted serves on those breakpoints much to the annoyance of Djokovic. But Djokovic wasn’t to be denied. He broke Bedene in the 6th game of the set having held his serves comfortably and let out a guttural roar to the Philippe Chatrier crowd. Bathed in the afternoon sun, Djokovic never looked back as he sailed to take the set 6-3.

It was one of those moments when you can say a player is in the zone. Despite Bedene’s best efforts, he could not shake off the zen like Djokovic from that “zone”. The story of the second set did not deviate from the script. Only this time, Djokovic broke his hapless opponent twice and made a grand total of 3 unforced errors. He won the set 6-3. Bedene did put up some resistance at the beginning of the third. Djokovic had to fend off a breakpoint in the opening game. The only one he faced in the entire match.

That was perhaps the only shred of mortality on display from his side of the net. Bedene stayed on serve till 3-2 and was leading 40-0. He then made 3 unforced errors and 2 double faults to surrender his serve. As if Djokovic needed any luck today. Djokovic never looked back. On a star studded field with football legend Zinedine Zidane, Ex Arsenal Manager Arsene Wenger and Hollywood star Owen Wilson watching him on, Djokovic wrapped up the match in under two hours. It was a display of ruthless efficiency.

The Djokovic serve has gone through a series of evolution over his career. When he won his first Grand Slam at the 2008 Australian Open, he had a pretty solid serve with a slightly higher ball toss and a smaller shoulder extension. He then changed his serve drastically when he hired Todd Martin in 2009. His serve now was much more of a bowling action. It wasn’t something natural to his game.

He ditched the serve and Todd Martin and went back to his basics with Marian Vajda which resulted in him going on a tear in 2011.  The serve stayed pretty much the same over the years till he had to come through an elbow surgery in 2018 due to a chronic injury. His serve now has a lower ball toss than before and puts less pressure on his elbow. Under Goran Ivanisevic’s tutelage, he’s now added extra pace and precision. He is well known for his return of serve prowess. His serve, often underrated, is now a major weapon. 

In this third round match against Bedene, he lost just seven points behind his first serve. The forehand of Djokovic is another shot that has been firing on all cylinders since Rome.  He made 24 winners off that wing. Djokovic won his 100th match at Roland Garros in some emphatic fashion sending down a clear message to his opponents.

During the post match on court interviews, Djokovic displayed yet another skill. His polyglot ability to converse in many languages as he carried out the interview in French. When asked was he close to perfect in his match today, he said, “It’s subjective. You can’t play a perfect match but you always try to play close to perfection. I have big expectations on my level every day, whenever I enter a tennis court, when I am at training, to try and play my aggressive tennis. It’s not always possible but today, I did really well.” 

He has now won 19th sets in a row since his loss in Madrid. In his pursuit of perfection at Roland-Garros, Diego Schwartzman stands next in the way. He is now at the halfway mark of defending his title. The road ahead gets rockier and rockier. Since his resurrection in Rome, he’s looked every bit the world #1 and the defending champion he is. And if signs tell us something, Djokovic has beaten Bedene twice before at slams including once at Roland Garros in 2016. Both those times, Djokovic went on to win the title.

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