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Saturday In Paris • Tennis From Roland Garros By Alix Ramsay

Novak Djokovic of Serbia plays Dominic Thiem of Austria during their men?s semi final match during the French Open tennis tournament at Roland Garros in Paris, France, 08 June 2019. EPA-EFE/JULIEN DE ROSA
Novak Djokovic of Serbia plays Dominic Thiem of Austria during their men’s semi final match during the French Open tennis tournament at Roland Garros in Paris, France, 08 June 2019. EPA-EFE/JULIEN DE ROSA

 

 

Many a tennis watcher has had that feeling that, deep down, Novak Djokovic wants to grow up to be Roger Federer.

 

He certainly wants to be loved and respected in the way the Mighty Fed (and, come to think of it, the lovely Rafa) is loved and respected but there is still that feeling that he wants to be the best like Fed, he wants to be the GOAT like Fed, he wants to be the statesman like Fed, the international brand like Fed. And he wants the world to know that he is all of these things, too.

 

But yet again, Djokovic has proved just why he can never be any of the above in the way he allowed the situation, the conditions and, ultimately, Dominic Thiem to get on top of him as he lost the French Open semi-final over two windy days 6-2, 3-6, 7-5, 5-7, 7-5.

 

The conditions were miserable for everyone – the clay was being blown in huge clouds across the court, getting into everything (eyes, ears, noses and various other orifices best left unmentioned); the wind was taking the ball every which way but the way it was sent and sticking to any game plan was all but impossible. But the wind was as problematic on one side of the net as the other and the miserable bits were as bad for one player as another. But only Djokovic allowed it to ruin his French Open challenge.

 

Djoko was chasing history: his second non-calendar year Grand Slam. He wanted to become only the second man in history to hold all four slams twice. He was within spitting distance of doing it, too, until the wind picked up and he let it get to him.

 

Thiem was very, very good, but Djokovic was doing his damnedest to beat himself. From the very first game on Friday afternoon, he was moaning and whining to the umpire about the conditions. When he lost the first set with barely a hint of resistance, he called for the assistant supervisor to discuss matters. Andres Egli told him to get on with it – there were no written rules about windy days.

 

“There is no rules,” Djokovic grumped after finally losing on Saturday. “What I was explained yesterday on the court in the first set when I asked the supervisor, he came on the court and he said as long as there are no flying objects coming to the court, we’re good.

 

“I didn’t know that umbrella is not a flying object, which flew in in the first game of the match, but that’s their decision. I guess they know tennis better.”

 

Thiem, mind you, who was also playing under constant threat of being beaned by a flying brolly, didn’t have a word to say to the umpire or the other officials. He was just busy getting on with the business of trying to win a tennis match. Even when he broke for a 3-1 lead in the third set and was promptly whisked off court for rain, he was none too bothered. OK, we come back tomorrow and finish off then. Djoko, though, could not let it go.

 

“Obviously when you’re playing in hurricane kind of conditions, you know, it’s hard to perform your best,” Djokovic moaned. “It’s really just kind of surviving in these kind of conditions and trying to hold your serve and play one ball more than your opponent in the court.

 

“That’s what it felt like playing yesterday, to be honest. It is what it is. You know, I played great tennis, I think, throughout most of the clay court season. And here I didn’t drop a set until semis.”

 

And in the semis, Djokovic stopped playing clay court tennis and started playing the elements instead. And it cost him.

 

Now, compare the world No.1’s reaction to playing in a howling gale – and losing – to that of our friend Mr Federer. Fed lost in straight sets to Raf, his game affected by the wind in the same way as Djoko’s, but Fed tried to think and play his way through the problem. He didn’t win but, then again, he never has beaten Rafa at Roland Garros. Raf is rather good at this clay court malarkey.

 

“You get to a point where you’re just happy to make shots and not look ridiculous,” Fed explained. “I mean, it’s that bad. It’s just really difficult for both of us. There is also no way to practice in these conditions, you know. It’s all a mindset. It’s footwork. It’s all that stuff, you know.

 

“But again, I don’t think I played poorly in the wind today. It’s just it’s tough on clay. You know, you’ve got to try to take on the half volleys, too, all that stuff. It just adds to the equation. He’s the best clay-court player, so I can accept that. It’s not a problem.

 

“It was difficult, but I accept that. He played in an incredible way. He has incredible abilities on clay. I knew that ahead of time. I don’t look like I fight, but I do. And I tried to believe in it. I tried to turn the match around until the end. But the further along down the match, the better he seemed to feel in the wind.”

 

So the old GOAT accepts his lot: it was a big ask to try and beat Raf on a good day and Friday was not a good day. But on a bad day, Raf was the better player. Meanwhile Djoko, he who wants to be the Mighty Fed, is still kvetching about the weather while he allows his chance to do something that nether Fed nor Raf have done – hold all four titles for the second time – slip away.

 

Djoko, clearly, has an awful lot of growing up to do before he can be regarded in the same light at his fellow beaten semi-finalist. And it does not look like that is going to happen any time soon.

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