June 16th, 2024

Novak Djokovic earns his record 370th Grand Slam match win with another French Open 5-setter

By Howard Fendrich, The Associated Press on June 3, 2024.

PARIS (AP) – Novak Djokovic was laying on his back on a French Open sideline early in the second set Monday, wincing while his bothersome right knee was manipulated by a trainer. A couple of hours of stumbling and limping later, Djokovic found himself down by a set and a break against a younger, eager opponent.

Ah, but this is Novak Djokovic, who never met an obstacle too daunting or a deficit he couldn’t overcome.

Doing what he does so well, and coming back to win in five sets across about 4 1/2 hours for the second consecutive time, Djokovic surged past No. 23 Francisco Cerundolo 6-1, 5-7, 3-6, 7-5, 6-3 in the fourth round at Roland Garros for his record 370th win in a Grand Slam match.

Djokovic, ranked No. 1 and the defending champion in Paris, broke a tie with Roger Federer for the most match wins at major tournaments – and also for the most Slam quarterfinals for a man by reaching the 59th of his career.

“I was,” Djokovic said afterward, “maybe three or four points away from losing this match.”

He did it in ways he has so often over his years of dominance and 24 major trophies, a total that includes three at the French Open. He both turned around a contest after trailing – go ahead and ask Federer about holding match points against the guy – and emerging when the tension is greatest. Djokovic is 40-11 in fifth sets over his career; compare that with Cerundolo’s 1-3 mark, and the outcome should surprise no one.

“How did I find the way to win again? I don’t know. The only explanation I have is you,” Djokovic told the crowd at Court Philippe Chatrier. “Thank you.”

In the third round, he made his way past No. 30 Lorenzo Musetti, a 22-year-old from Italy, finishing Sunday after 3 a.m., the latest finish in French Open history.

Against Cerundolo, a 25-year-old from Argentina who was trying to reach his first Grand Slam quarterfinal, the 37-year-old Djokovic again used all of his skills, experience and ability to adjust on the fly. He came through, in part, by playing more aggressively and putting extra speed on his groundstrokes, while dealing with whatever was going on with his knee.

Djokovic was two games from defeat when he fell behind 4-2 in the fourth, but he took that set. The score was 3-all in the fifth, but he asserted himself and grabbed every remaining game. That included breaking to lead 5-3 with a forehand winner that landed right on the baseline – so close to being out that chair umpire Aurélie Tourte climbed out of her perch to check.

As he took control, Djokovic was shouting and raising his arms after key points, or raising both arms in a “V,” or waving his hands to request more noise from his supporters. They would oblige, naturally.

Still, there was the not-insignificant matter of his knee.

At 2-1 in the crucible of the fifth set, Djokovic’s feet gave way as he chased a ball to his right, and he rolled on the ground, caking his white shorts, his red shirt and parts of his arms and legs with the rust-colored clay. As he walked to the sideline to grab a bottle of water to clean off, he gave a piece of his mind to anyone who would listen, renewing an earlier complaint about wanting the court to be swept to improve traction.

“Well done, supervisor and everybody,” Djokovic said, his voice drenched in sarcasm. “Not slippery at all.”

Yet he was just fine at 3-all in that set, when he stretched and slid, doing the splits, while somehow getting his racket on the ball for a winning drop volley. His chest on the ground, Djokovic stuck out both arms, mimicking an airplane, and smiled.

It was hours earlier that Djokovic took a medical timeout and plopped down on a towel so the trainer could work on his right leg. There would be later visits during changeovers, too. After some lengthier points, Djokovic used his racket to lean on or he bent at the waist and rested with hands on knees.

When he missed a backhand that allowed Cerundolo to convert a break point for the first time in 13 tries, Djokovic ceded the second set. Soon, he was staring at a two-sets-to-one hole. Not long after that, he was down in the fourth.

Another athlete might cower. Not Djokovic.

Instead, he plays on. His quarterfinal opponent Wednesday will be two-time French Open runner-up Casper Ruud or Taylor Fritz. The other men’s matchup that day will be Alex de Minaur against Alexander Zverev or Holger Rune.

On Monday, de Minaur defeated 2021 U.S. Open champion Daniil Medvedev 4-6, 6-2, 6-1, 6-3 to become the first Australian man in the French Open quarterfinals since Lleyton Hewitt in 2004.

Women’s quarterfinal matchups established Monday are Aryna Sabalenka vs. 17-year-old Mirra Andreeva, and Elena Rybakina vs. Jasmine Paolini.

With temperatures topping 70 degrees Fahrenheit (20 Celsius) after a tournament of chillier weather and plenty of rain, Djokovic vs. Cerundolo was played with the main stadium’s retractable roof open. The azure sky was visible finally as they began in the late afternoon.

Djokovic’s comeback truly began in the evening, at 4-3 in the fourth, when he smacked a winner to earn a break point – not to mention roars from the stands – and converted when Cerundolo netted a shot. Djokovic shook his racket overhead, and a chant of his two-syllable nickname rang out, “No-le! No-le!”

He arrived in Paris with just a 14-6 record in 2024 and not one appearance in a tournament final, let alone a title. This was his mindset for Roland Garros: “Low expectations and high hopes.”

Sure, he’s been living on the edge through the first half of the French Open – his past two matches required 9 hours, 8 minutes spread over 10 sets – but no one ever has been as good as Djokovic at Slam time.

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AP Sports Writer Jerome Pugmire and Associated Press Writer Tom Nouvian contributed to this report.

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AP tennis: https://apnews.com/hub/tennis

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