MONTE CARLO HIGHLIGHTS: Davidovich Fokina denies Djokovic

Advertising

The eyes of the sports world were on Novak Djokovic as walked onto center court at the Monte Carlo Country Club for his second-round match against Alejandro Davidovich Fokina on Tuesday. This was just his fourth appearance of 2022, and his first since February. It was also the first time the world No. 1 had played at a top-level event since his headline-making exit from Australia four months ago.

In the days leading up to the tournament, Djokovic said “the last four or five months have been really challenging for me mentally and emotionally,” and that he was going to “try to leave all of that behind me and move on.” The last time Djokovic had played on clay, in June of 2021, he had won the French Open. His next goal is to defend that title, and re-tie Rafael Nadal with his 21st major title. Monte Carlo would be the first step on that two-month journey. “I miss competition,” Djokovic said, and he seemed pleased to make his return on what has been his home court for many years.

But a funny thing happened over the next two hours and 54 minutes. It was Djokovic’s opponent who proved to be the player to watch. The 22-year-old, 46th-ranked Spaniard showed off all of the daredevil athleticism that has long made him one of the most entertaining members of the ATP’s younger set.

Davidovich Fokina belted forehands past Djokovic into the corners. He beat him with backhand crosscourt passes hit on the full run. And, whenever he had a chance, he dove—he dove into the corners to track down ground strokes; he dove at the net to try to stab back volleys; sometimes he just crashed into the clay for no apparent reason. For most of the match, the back of his shirt was covered in cracked red earth. With his blond hair and stocky body, Davidovich Fokina has always reminded people of David Nalbandian; today he took us back to the days when a teenage Boris Becker put his body on the line on a regular basis.

“I don’t know how many times I fall down,” Davidovich Fokina said with a laugh later.

Davidovich Fokina went nine for 20 on break points against Djokovic.

Davidovich Fokina went nine for 20 on break points against Djokovic.

What mattered was how many times he got up. The Spaniard said he knew he needed to have a good start, because Djokovic would be rusty. But even ADF had to be surprised by how quickly he came out of the gate today. Whatever Djokovic tried—drop shot, net rush, even a moon ball or two—Davidovich Fokina was on top of it. For the vast majority of this match, he was the bigger and bolder ball-striker, and the faster mover. He won the first set 6-3, and went up a break twice in the second set, at 3-0 and 4-2.

And then Djokovic woke up. Despite his familiarity with Monte Carlo, it has been far from his favorite event over the years. He hasn’t been to the final there since 2015, and he doesn’t typically find his clay legs until Madrid. He didn’t find them today until he was down a set and a break; annoyed by a fan making noise behind him at 0-2 in the second set, Djokovic began to show some fire and get the crowd involved for the first time.

From there, the rest of the set see-sawed back and forth, as each man veered from brilliant to scratchy from one game to the next. ADF led 4-2, before being broken twice. Djokovic served for the set at 5-4 and was broken. ADF led 4-2 in the second-set tiebreaker, but Djokovic won it 7-5 with his best shot of the day, a scrambling forehand pass that dropped into the corner for a winner. When Djokovic cupped his hand to his ear and asked for noise, just about everyone watching believed he had survived the worst. Everyone except Davidovich Fokina.

“I’m working so hard to be more focused,” ADF said, “doesn’t matter if I lose the second set or lose the first set, I have to be prepared for the war.”

Advertising

Djokovic has played two tournaments in 2022. He's 2-2.

Djokovic has played two tournaments in 2022. He's 2-2.

Davidovich Fokina, it turned out, was better prepared for a third set than Djokovic. He broke early, saved a crucial break point at 2-1 with a crosscourt forehand winner, and broke again for 4-1. A few minutes later, he was a 6-3, 6-7 (5), 6-1 winner.

“I needed to have that confidence from the beginning,” Davidovich Fokina said. “I was playing really good. My coach told me, ‘Focus on every point, because you can do it.’”

As Davidovich Fokina grew stronger down the stretch, Djokovic unraveled. He was broken nine times on the day, the most-ever for him in a best-of-three-set match. Afterward, Djokovic said he thought he could come back after the first set, and he stayed in it as long as he could, but “game-wise, physically, I was far from my best.”

Last year, Djokovic lost early to Dan Evans in Monte Carlo, and eventually won the French Open. So panic isn’t necessary where he’s concerned. What does seem necessary is an appreciation for Davidovich Fokina’s performance, and a hope that he can produce this brand of audacious, and physically courageous, tennis more often in the future.