From declaring in Indian Wells that he felt as though he was playing his first match on the ATP World Tour again, things have steadily improved for the 12-time Slam champion and former No. 1, Novak Djokovic.
When the draw came out, most eyes were drawn to what would have been a blockbuster of a clash, in better times, between Djokovic and Kei Nishikori. More often seen at the later stages of Slams or the top tournaments, injuries and slips in the rankings have seen two of the biggest names clash in the opening round.
It did not look to disappoint either, with Nishikori drawing first blood with the break, but pegged back almost immediately. Djokovic knuckled down to save two set points before breaking Nishikori again for the first set.
In a competitive first set, with Nishikori pressing but ultimately ot converting on a break point, neither player gave an inch, before Djokovic delivered the final blow and another break, this time for the match.
There is absolutely no doubt that he is making huge strides in the right direction when we set aside his too-rapid return in Australia and his quest for perfection that eluded him in Indian Wells. In fact, his gruelling battle with Dominic Thiem in Monte Carlo saw glimmers of the old Djokovic, and left a sense that it was just a tournament too early for him.
Could Madrid be his turning point? He said: “Kei is a great quality player. We both haven’t had too many of these kinds of matches in the last 12 months. He played well in Monte-Carlo, played finals there. Me, I was looking forward to [having] these kind of matches, looking to try to win these kind of matches.
“So that’s why it was really perfect scenario to start off the tournament where I always felt like I had lots of success and played well and felt well. It’s great. I couldn’t ask for a better start.”
The reunion with Marian Vajda in his side could well the answer as he looks to rebuild his game from the ground up.
“I think it’s going to take a little bit of time for us to really get my game together the way we want to. Even though they know my game very well, it’s still a process because I haven’t had, as I said, too many of the matches like this, too many consecutive matches won.
“I’m still looking for that match play. That’s the best practice you can have. I mean, we can practice as much as we want outside. Once you get on the court, it’s very much necessary to get as many matches under the belt as possible. This is a good beginning, hopefully.”
While we rack our brains for anyone in the current ATP clay-court swing to mount a challenge to a seemingly indestructible Rafael Nadal, we cannot help but remember Djokovic in his prime, winning the Madrid and Rome double in 2011 and winning Madrid once more in 2016.
He might be off that kind of pace just now, but the tentative steps from March are getting longer, and with more purpose, even though maybe his chastening start at Indian Wells has forced him to reset his focus and expectations.
“It’s something I have to accept, I have to embrace. I think in general I feel much better about everything that is happening on the court and around tennis, in general, with my body than maybe two months ago. I mean, six months off because of the elbow, and I start training again, getting ready for pre-season, then elbow starts hurting again. It’s not really a pleasant feeling.
“I clenched my teeth and I kind of went through it, played Australia, but wasn’t really ready. Then I had to do surgery. It takes time to overcome that surgery. It has obviously some consequences on your body that I never faced before, I never knew before, because I never had any surgery before.
“It was a lot of new experiences for me, a lot of things that I had to face and understand. When I look back, you know, I don’t regret anything. I just think that’s life. That was something that was supposed to happen for me, to teach me some lessons, to make me stronger, to allow me to grow, to evolve as a person, as a player.
“I’m grateful. There’s worse things in life. I’m just here, and that’s all I can say.”
Djokovic will face the winner of the match between Daniil Medvedev and Kyle Edmund.
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