Tennis: Djokovic keeps his French Open title defense going by getting past Lorenzo Musetti in 5 sets

AP , Sunday 2 Jun 2024

Novak Djokovic’s French Open title defense — and his hold on the No. 1 ranking — are still alive thanks to a 7-5, 6-7 (6), 2-6, 6-3, 6-0 comeback victory over 22-year-old Italian Lorenzo Musetti in a third-round match that lasted 4 1/2 hours and did not conclude until Sunday after 3 a.m., the latest finish in tournament history.

Serbia s Novak Djokovic plays a backhand return to Italy s Lorenzo Musetti during their men s singles match on Court Philippe-Chatrier on day seven of the French Open tennis tournament at the Roland Garros Complex in Paris. AFP

It is Djokovic’s 369th win at a Grand Slam tournament, tying Roger Federer for the most in tennis history. Djokovic can break the mark on Monday, when he’ll face No. 23 seed Francisco Cerundolo of Argentina.

Djokovic briefly looked as if he might be unable to recover against Musetti but instead ran away with the final two sets and now will continue his bid for a record 25th Grand Slam title and fourth at Roland Garros.

“I was in real trouble and credit to Lorenzo for making me uncomfortable on the court and playing some really amazing tennis. Very high level. At one point, I didn’t know, really, what to do,” the 37-year-old Djokovic said. “It didn’t feel great playing him that third set and the beginning of the fourth.”

Gasping for breath while leaning over with hands on knees, or taking so much time between points that he earned a warning, Djokovic appeared to be exhausted at times against his much younger, backward-hat-wearing opponent. Musetti was propelled to the lead by a one-handed backhand, a deft touch at the net and a 5-for-5 success rate on break chances — playing, in sum, “the tennis of his life,” as Djokovic put it.

Djokovic said he found the damp and cold conditions, and heavy clay, hard to deal with, especially “when you’re playing 20-plus-shot rallies at 2 a.m.; who plays at 2 a.m., you know?”

But Djokovic is nothing if not a determined problem-solver. And once Djokovic got headed in the right direction in the fourth set, thanks to playing more aggressively on service returns and closer to the baseline during groundstrokes exchanges, the 30th-ranked Musetti could not withstand the charge.

One telling stat: Djokovic improved to 39-11 in fifth sets over his career; Musetti fell to 2-6.

Djokovic has spent more weeks atop the ATP rankings than anyone, but if he fails to return to the final at the French Open, he will cede that spot to Musetti’s countryman, current No. 2 Jannik Sinner.

That’s because a loss in this match would have been the latest in a series of disappointing results in 2024 for the oft-dominant Djokovic, who won 12 of the last 20 Grand Slam events he entered and hasn’t been beaten this early at a major since the Australian Open in January 2017.

Not only hasn’t he earned a trophy at any tournament this season, but he hasn’t even reached a final.

That’s why, a week ago, Djokovic assessed his mindset when arriving in Paris with a 14-6 record this year: “Low expectations and high hopes.”

Those words also might have described Djokovic’s thoughts entering the fourth set against Musetti, who never has been past the fourth round at any Slam.

The bundled-up spectators frequently chanted Djokovic’s first name, or his two-syllable nickname, “No-le.” Musetti heard plenty of support in Court Philippe Chatrier, too. The sound reverberated off the underside of the retractable roof, which was closed because of showers that arrived earlier Saturday, the fifth day in a row with showers.

That weather was partially responsible for Djokovic and Musetti not setting foot on court until 10:30 p.m., more than two hours later than originally planned: Tournament organizers moved an additional contest into the safe-from-rain main stadium ahead of Djokovic-Musetti to try and make sure the third round would get completed on time.

“Things could have been handled a different way,” Djokovic said of the scheduling choice.

This was a rematch from the 2021 French Open, when Musetti was just 19 — and making his Grand Slam debut — and took the first two sets off Djokovic. But Djokovic grabbed the next two sets, and Musetti stopped playing in the fifth because of back pain and cramps.

Once again, Musetti took the lead before succumbing.

This time, Djokovic was actually a point from taking a two-set lead while ahead 6-5 in the second-set tiebreaker. But Musetti took the next three points and that set.

At the ensuing changeover, Djokovic tried to persuade chair umpire Adel Nour to have the court cleaned more frequently.

“I ask you to sweep the court, because there’s so much clay,” Djokovic said. “I don’t know why it’s asking so much at 1 a.m., after waiting 20 hours to play.”

He would drop the next set, too.

Musetti had to know Djokovic would not go quietly. Surely, the vocal crowd did, too.

Suddenly, Djokovic broke to 3-2 in the fourth set. He shook a fist and, as he sat in his sideline chair, motioned for more noise. They obliged.

As that set ended, with Djokovic reaching a shot ball and replying at an impossible angle, he windmilled his arms and then pointed to his ear.

Soon, he was the winner, roaring on the court while his wife jumped and shouted in the stands.

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