On Monte-Carlo Clay, World No. 1 Djokovic Fought Better Than He Played Against Kohlschreiber

Novak Djokovic (photo: MC Rolex Masters)

MONTE CARLO, April 16, 2019 (by Michael Dickens)

World No. 1 Novak Djokovic began his pursuit of a third Rolex Monte-Carlo Masters title when he took on Philipp Kohlschreiber under cool (14º Celsius), mostly cloudy skies covering Court Rainier III Tuesday afternoon. While the 35-year-old German veteran won their most recent meeting at Indian Wells, in straight sets on a hard-court surface – and was looking for his 20th career win in Monte-Carlo – Djokovic had been the master on clay in their previous head-to-head meetings.

This time, Djokovic fought better than he played. The frustration and emotion showed on his 31-year-old face throughout much of the two hour and 36 minute match. Serving eight double faults will do that even to the best of champions. The two-time Monte-Carlo champion Djokovic overcame a second-set letdown, in which his serve was broken four times, and finally won on his fifth match-point opportunity, 6-3, 4-6, 6-4, after Kohlschreiber hit a backhanded return long. It was Djokovic’s 14th victory in 17 matches this year and the 850th tour-level win of his career. It was also the Serbian’s third win in four tries on clay against Kohlschreiber – and ninth overall in 11 matches. Once victory was secured, Djokovic emphatically whacked a ball high into the stands for a souvenir.

“Let’s not take anything for granted in this match,” said Tennis Channel analyst James Blake, himself a former Top 10 player, after Djokovic muffed on his third match-point opportunity. Then, after it was over, Blake remarked: “It was a hard-fought victory and (Djokovic) was not left playing his best tennis. But, he competed hard and lives to fight another day. He’ll figure out what he’s doing right and what he’s doing wrong – and, maybe, do better in the next round.”

Later, when Djokovic met the media, he spoke about the “ups and downs” of his match and how he felt “a bit rusty” on the court.

“I had a tough opponent, of course. Philipp beat me in Indian Wells. It was a match that happened less than a month ago, so of course it was in the back of my mind a bit,” said Djokovic, as quoted by the ATP Tour website. “I thought I should have maybe stepped in and played a bit more aggressive in the second set, but credit to him for mixing up the pace and playing well.

“I’ll take this win. Hopefully I can play slightly better in the next round, because if I want to go deep in the tournament, I definitely have to up my game.”

Although Djokovic was ranked 13th when he arrived at Monte-Carlo last year, he’s been ranked No. 1 five times during this ATP Masters 1000 tournament. Next, he will face either 24th-ranked Diego Schwartzman of Argentina or No. 65 Taylor Fritz of the United States in Thursday’s third round. Fritz, the only American in the draw, was ahead of No. 102 Jo-Wilfried Tsonga, 6-4, 2-0, when the Frenchman was forced to retire due to a left hip ailment.

Elsewhere, Felix Auger-Aliassime of Canada won his 15th tour-level match with a 7-5, 7-6 (5) triumph over No. 79 Juan Ignacio Londero of Argentina. The 18-year-old Canadian, who converted 88 percent of his first-serve points during the one hour and 58 minute match, won on his fourth match-point opportunity.

“It was a tough match. He already won a title this year. I played against him in South America, and he had victory after victory, so I knew it was going to be difficult. And it was,” said Auger-Aliassime, as quoted after the match by the ATP Tour website. “But I’m very happy to win my first match after Miami, because I didn’t know what to expect after Miami. But I felt from the beginning I was having a good feeling.”

Next, the 33rd-ranked Auger-Aliassime will face World No. 3 Alexander Zverev of Germany on Wednesday as he goes after his second Top 10 win in an ATP Masters 1000 event this year.

Pella, Sonego score upset victories

Also, Guido Pella of Argentina, who rallied from two sets down to win an epic five-setter over Marin Cilic at Wimbledon last summer, beat the seventh-seeded Croatian, again, 6-3, 5-7, 6-1, to advance to the third round. The 35th-ranked Pella improved his record on clay this year to 13-3 by breaking Cilic’s serve eight times and won 52 percent (48 of 93) of his return points during the two hour and 16 minute match on Court Rainier III. Earlier this year, Pella won his first ATP Tour title at the Brasil Open. Next, he will face No. 11 seed Marco Cecchinato. The Italian recovered from an 0-6 first-set drubbing against 36th-ranked Stan Wawrinka of Switzerland and beat the 2014 Monte-Carlo champion, 0-6, 7-5, 6-3, in one hour and 44 minutes.

Qualifier Lorenzo Sonego of Italy upset No. 8 seed Karen Khachanov of Russia, 7-6 (4), 6-4, to earn his first Top 20 win in his Monte-Carlo debut. Playing just his second match against an opponent ranked inside the Top 20 (Khachanov is ranked 12th), Sonego saved seven of eight break points while improving his tour-level win-loss record to 8-6. In the third round, Sonego will face the winner of Wednesday’s second-round match between No. 56 Cameron Norrie of Great Britain and No. 37 Marton Fucsovics of Hungary. Norrie advanced over No. 58 Adrian Mannarino of France, 6-4, 6-3.

Herbert pays tribute to Notre-Dame

Meanwhile, Pierre-Hugues Herbert of France, ranked 39th, advanced over 2010 Monte-Carlo finalist Fernando Verdasco, 6-4, 6-4. It was his first head-to-head victory over the 38th-ranked Spaniard in four tries. Next, Herbert will oppose No. 5 seed Kei Nishikori of Japan on Wednesday.

After his win, Herbert paid homage to Notre-Dame as he signed the Eurosport court-side camera lens. He spelled out “Notre Dame” and accented it with a broken heart.

“It touched me a lot like a lot of French people,” said Herbert, as quoted by French newspaper Le Figaro. “It was shocking to see the cathedral in flames and the (spire) collapse. It is an emblem of Paris, an emblem of France. I said that if I won my match, I will do something about this dramatic event. I watched TV until 10:30 last night, then went to sleep, waking at 7 a.m.”

Another Frenchman advanced as 26th-ranked Gilles Simon defeated Australian qualifier Alexei Popyrin, ranked No. 120, 7-5, 6-1. Next, Simon will face No. 13 seed Fabio Fognini of Italy.

Finally, No. 9 seed Borna Coric of Croatia saved a match point against No. 61 wild card Jaume Munar of Spain in the second set and came back for a 6-7 (3), 7-6 (7), 6-4 second-round victory in three hours and 28 minutes as play wrapped up on Court des Princes well after the 8:13 p.m. sunset Tuesday evening. Next, Coric awaits the Nishikori-Herbert winner in the third round.

Notre-Dame fire affects tennis world

As the tennis world will soon be heading to Roland Garros in Paris for the French Open, several past and present players shared their thoughts via social media about Notre-Dame Cathedral, which was engulfed in flames by a tragic fire Monday evening.

Hall of Fame great Martina Navratilova tweeted: “A France in Turmoil Weeps for a Symbol of Paris’s Enduring Identity – the whole world weeps …”

The 11-time French Open champion Rafael Nadal tweeted: “Going to sleep still under shock with the images we see in Paris. All my support to all Parisians and French people and authorities.”

Fabio Fognini of Italy, who earlier Monday won his first-round match over Andrey Rublev, tweeted:

What they’re saying

No. 2 seed Rafael Nadal, who has won 11 Monte-Carlo singles titles and begins his quest for a 12th on Wednesday against Roberto Bautista Agut, spoke to the media on Monday: “In terms of tennis, I can’t complain much. Every time that I played I have been in a position to win tournaments. Life has been too good for me to be frustrated. But yes, at some point, even if I appreciate all the things that this sport has given me and this life has given to me, sometimes it’s tough to accept when you have problems in a row and this year since the beginning of the season has been tough.

“But I think almost every time I’ve had a chance to be back I’ve been able to be very competitive and I hope to keep my level.”

Looking ahead to Wednesday

Four of the top five seeds will be in action on Court Rainier III on Wednesday, headlined by No. 2 seed Rafael Nadal, who will face 22nd-ranked Roberto Bautista Agut in a battle of Spanish compatriots. The Nadal-Bautista Agut match is third on court from 11 a.m. local time and follows No. 5 seed Kei Nishikori of Japan versus Pierre-Hugues Herbert of France, and wild card Felix Auger-Aliassime of Canada against No. 3 seed Alexander Zverev of Germany. The day concludes with No. 4 seed Dominic Thiem of Austria facing No. 50 Martin Klizan of Slovakia. Four other seeds – No. 6 Stefanos Tsitsipas of Greece, No. 10 Daniil Medvedev, No. 13 Fabio Fognini of Italy, and No. 16 David Goffin of Belgium – are also in action.

Tuesday’s results

Second round singles
No.1. Novak Djokovic d. Philipp Kohlschreiber, 6-3, 4-6, 6-4
Q-Lorenzo Sonego d. No. 8 Karen Khachanov, 7-6 (4), 6-4
No. 9 Borna Coric d. WC-Jaume Munar, 6-7 (3), 7-6 (7), 6-4
Guido Pella d. No. 7 Marin Cilic, 6-3, 5-7, 6-1
No. 11 Marco Cecchinato d. Stan Wawrinka, 0-6, 7-5, 6-3

First round singles
Taylor Fritz d. Jo-Wilfried Tsonga, 6-4, 2-0 (retired)
Cameron Norrie d. Adrian Mannarino, 6-4, 6-3
Pierre-Hugues Herbert d. Fernando Verdasco, 6-4, 6-4
Gilles Simon d. Q-Alexei Popyrin, 7-5, 6-1
WC-Felix Auger-Aliassime d. Q-Juan Ignacio Londero, 7-5, 7-6 (5)

First round doubles
Radu Albot-Nikoloz Basilashvili d. No. 8 Raven Klaasen-Joe Salisbury, 6-3, 6-7 (5), 10-7
Diego Schwartzman-Joao Sousa d. Kyle Edmund-Neal Skupski, 5-7, 6-4, 10-5
Marcelo Demoliner-Daniil Medvedev d. David Goffin-Lucas Pouille, 7-5, 6-3
No. 7 Nikola Mektic-Franko Skugor d. Matwe Middelkoop-Stefanos Tsitsipas, 6-3, 7-5
Marton Fucsovics-Guido Pella d. Matteo Berrettini-Fabio Fognini, 6-4, 6-3
WC-Jurgen Melzer-Dominic Thiem d. Philipp Kohlschreiber-Fernando Verdasco, 6-4, 7-5