French Open: After climbing his own Everest, the comedown could be biggest threat to Djokovic hopes

By Sports Desk June 12, 2021

Novak Djokovic described beating Rafael Nadal at the French Open as the tennis equivalent of scaling Mount Everest – and it will be how he copes with the descent that dictates his prospects in Sunday's final.

Researchers have pointed to that being the real danger on Everest expeditions, and there are perils involved in a tennis comedown too, although Djokovic was optimistic he would be ready for Stefanos Tsitsipas in the Roland Garros title match.

"I'm not the freshest guy right now obviously," Djokovic said after his four hours and 11 minutes epic semi-final against Nadal.

"The good thing is that I have a day and a half to rejuvenate and try to regroup, think about my next opponent."

The world number one intended to spend a large part of Saturday resting up before, as he put it, "hopefully being able to be fit to compete in the best-of-five with a guy who is in a great shape".

"It's not the first time that I've played an epic semi-final in a grand slam and then I've had to come back in less than 48 hours and play finals," Djokovic said.

"My recovery abilities are pretty good, I must say, throughout my career. Obviously my physiotherapist will try to do everything possible so I can be fresh.

"Because I played enough tennis, I don't need to train too much. It's really now just about taking things slowly until the day of the finals. I know what I need to do.

"Obviously Tsitsipas, first time in the finals of a grand slam, if I'm not mistaken. For him it's a great achievement, but I'm sure he doesn't want to stop there.

"He's in great form. I think he leads the rankings, race rankings, this year. He's had his best results overall. I think he matured as a player a lot.

"Clay is arguably his best surface. We played an epic five-setter last year in the semis here. I know it's going to be another tough one. I'm hoping I can recharge my batteries as much as I can because I'm going to need some power and energy for that one."

As much as Djokovic might recoil at the possibility of a brutal semi-final taking a heavy toll, there is evidence, contrary to his assessment, that he can struggle to raise his game for a grand slam title match after expending great energy in getting there.

It took him three hours and 54 minutes to score a five-set win over Tsitsipas in last year's Roland Garros semi-finals, and that was followed by a drubbing at Nadal's hands in the final. Djokovic won just seven games.

Before Friday's majestic clash with Nadal, the last time Djokovic had played a four-hour-plus semi-final at the French Open was in 2015 when he fended off Andy Murray in a gruelling five-setter. He went on to lose the final against world number nine Stan Wawrinka.

Djokovic also won a four-hour semi-final battle with Wawrinka at the 2013 US Open before losing to Nadal in the final, and earlier that year he fought off Juan Martin del Potro in a magnificent Wimbledon semi-final that lasted four hours and 43 minutes before being beaten by Murray in the title match.

If Djokovic is searching for recent evidence of his ability to follow a marathon semi-final with a match-winning turn in the title match, he would have to go back to Wimbledon in 2018, and even then there were circumstances that to some extent favoured the Serbian.

It took five hours and 15 minutes for Djokovic to overhaul Nadal in their All England Club semi-final which spanned two days, and he went on to demolish South African Kevin Anderson in the final.

However, that was hardly surprising given Anderson needed six hours and 24 minutes on the Friday to get past John Isner in his own semi-final – the longest semi-final in Wimbledon history.

That was after Anderson beat Roger Federer 13-11 in the deciding set of a marathon quarter-final, the upshot being that even if Djokovic was weary for the final after beating Nadal, he was facing a man who was practically out on his feet.

All this being said, Djokovic begins the final as favourite as he seeks a second French Open title in his sixth final appearance, and a 19th grand slam title overall.

Should he win, it would make him just the third man in history to win all four grand slam titles at least twice, after Roy Emerson and Rod Laver, and the first man to achieve that feat in the Open Era.

Amid all the talk of the 34-year-old Djokovic needing to physically recover, Tsitsipas' five-set semi-final exertions against Alexander Zverev are rather being overlooked.

That match clocked in at three hours and 37 minutes and will have been mentally and physically sapping for the 22-year-old Greek player, who, as Djokovic accurately pointed out, does lead the ATP Race to Turin standings, the table of 2021 form that decides the line-up for the ATP Finals in November.

Tsitsipas fended off a Zverev comeback, as the German recovered from two sets behind to force a decider on Friday, with the world number five showing serious big-game mettle in turning the momentum back his way.

The man who grew up near Athens, dreaming of playing on Court Philippe Chatrier, took a set off Djokovic when they met on clay in the Rome quarter-finals last month.

Now he has a first grand slam title in his sights, and looks as well equipped as any of the rising generation of young players to carry off multiple majors over the coming years.

"I'm proud of myself. I actually love what I'm doing," Tsitsipas said. "I love that I get to play in this stadium. I'm grateful for every single match that I get to play.

"I'm obviously just blessed to have the opportunity to play against the best and test myself, something that I've always dreamed and wished to happen one day. I'm able to be here and really going for it. I love that."

But as well as soaking in the experience, Tsitsipas wants to show he can be a champion at the highest level.

"It's time for me to go for my chances," he said. "I'm looking forward to that challenge. I'm looking forward to bringing my game to kind of challenge myself to step it up."

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    There is a debate to be had that, even if Real Madrid lose Saturday's Champions League final at Stade de France and Carlo Ancelotti never lifts another trophy again, the Italian will still be able to stake a claim as being remembered as the greatest coach of all time.

    After all, he has already won 22 trophies across a managerial career spanning 27 years that has seen him coach 10 different clubs in five different countries. Indeed, he this month became the first coach to win each of the Premier League, Serie A, Bundesliga, Ligue 1 and LaLiga.

    There is no questioning Carlo's credentials, then, but victory against Jurgen Klopp's Liverpool in Paris really would take the 62-year-old into 'GOAT' territory as the outright most successful coach in terms of major European honours.

    Ancelotti is currently level with Alex Ferguson and Giovanni Trapattoni in that regard with seven UEFA club competition triumphs – three Champions Leagues, three Super Cups and one Intertoto Cup, a much-derided competition that is now defunct.

    Many would suggest a better barometer of determining the true Greatest of All Time would be to simply look at how many Champions Leagues or European Cups, as it was formerly known, a manager has won. In that case, Ancelotti is level with Bob Paisley and Zinedine Zidane with three apiece.

    Triumphing for a fourth time in UEFA's showpiece competition, having previously done so with Milan in 2003 and 2007, and Madrid in 2014, would therefore set Ancelotti apart from the rest.

    The hugely experienced coach has a great record when it comes to Champions League finals, too, with victories in three of his previous four such matches. The only exception to that? In 2004-05 when Liverpool famously beat Milan on penalties in a game they trailed 3-0 at half-time.

    CARLO'S CUP PEDIGREE

    The glitz and glamour of a Champions League final was far from Klopp's mind in that campaign when in his fourth season in charge of Mainz. The 2004-05 season was just as memorable for the German club's supporters as Liverpool's, though, as they finished 11th in what was their first top-flight campaign.

    Seventeen years on, Klopp now has a shot at becoming one of 17 multiple-time winners of the European Cup/Champions League, level with the likes of Jose Mourinho, Pep Guardiola and even Manchester United great Ferguson.

    He went all the way with Liverpool in 2019, triumphing over domestic rivals Tottenham, but his previous two finals in the competition ended in disappointment, with defeat against Bayern Munich as Dortmund boss in 2013 and against Zidane's Madrid as Liverpool manager in 2018.

    Zidane may have been replaced by Ancelotti in the Madrid dugout, but this weekend presents Klopp – and indeed Liverpool – with a shot at redemption. Having won two trophies already with the Reds this season, Klopp's cup final record looks a lot better than it did just a few months ago.

    He has now won eight of his 18 finals, which compares to 16 victories from 22 finals for Ancelotti across all competitions. In percentage terms, Klopp has won 44 per cent of finals he has contested, while Ancelotti has won 73 per cent.

    A FAMILIAR FOE AWAITS

    Ancelotti and Klopp are no strangers to one another, of course, with Saturday's showdown set to be their 11th meeting in all competitions. Ancelotti edges the overall record from the previous 10 encounters with four wins to Klopp's three.

    Despite managing an Everton side far inferior to Klopp's Liverpool, Ancelotti lost just one of his three Merseyside derbies during his season-and-a-half in charge of the Toffees.

    That includes three successive games without defeat, culminating in a 2-0 win in February 2021 – Everton's first Anfield victory since 1999 and their first win either home or away over Liverpool since 2010.

    Ancelotti certainly had Klopp's number in the most recent of their battles, although the results of his two finals against English clubs in European competition have been mixed – the aforementioned shoot-out loss in 2005 and a 2-1 win two years later, both during his time with Milan and both against Liverpool.

    The Italian has certainly stood the test of time, with his 70 per cent win rate in his second stint with Madrid bettered only by the 75 per cent enjoyed the first time around in the Spanish capital, and now a shot at history – a fourth Champions League and an eighth European trophy – awaits.

    Against a familiar opponent in both Liverpool and Klopp, and in a city where he helped grow Paris Saint-Germain into a force to be reckoned with just over a decade ago, the stage is set for Ancelotti to further strengthen his claim as being the greatest of them all.

  • French Open: Novak Djokovic says energetic crowds are 'one of the biggest reasons' he continues to play French Open: Novak Djokovic says energetic crowds are 'one of the biggest reasons' he continues to play

    World number one Novak Djokovic highlighted the joy of having fans back in full attendance after he collected his second consecutive straight sets win to advance to the third round of the French Open, beating Alex Molcan 6-2 6-3 7-6 (7-4).

    In his first-round fixture against Yoshihito Nishioka, Djokovic won 55 per cent of the total points in the first set, and increased that number in the second and third.

    This time, however, it was Molcan who was slowly improving as the match wore on, as Djokovic won 70 per cent of the first-set points, 57 per cent in the second and 53 per cent as he was taken to a tie-breaker in the third.

    Speaking to the media after his win, the Serbian star said he feels in good touch, and gave credit to his "tricky opponent".

    "I'm pleased with the way I'm feeling on the court [and] the way I’ve been striking the ball," he said.

    "I think today was also under challenging conditions and playing against a specialist on clay, someone that is a tricky opponent and coming off from the [Lyon] final last week. 

    "It was never going to be an easy match, but I thought I performed very well."

    He went on to discuss how energising it is to have a full crowd after there was a limited capacity for his 2021 triumph.

    "It's great to see the crowd back [and] the full capacity on all courts," he said. "Lots of young people, lots of kids, this is something that I really love to see.

    "It always gives you energy. For me at this stage of my career, a crowd and this energy of people coming to watch me play is one of the biggest reasons why I keep on competing [and] playing professional tennis."

    Djokovic will play Slovakian Aljaz Bedene in the third round, and despite being aware of his collision course with Rafael Nadal set for the quarter-finals, he said looking ahead that far serves little purpose.

    "You are aware what's going on with the other guys, at least in my case, and I know that everyone else is watching everybody else," he said.

    "[But] that cannot be dominating most of your time and energy that you invest in a day. 

    "So you are aware, but then of course it's really not up to you what they do. It's what you have to do, win matches and make good results."

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    Carlos Alcaraz kept the nerves at bay when facing match point against Albert Ramos-Vinolas by forgetting that he was playing at the French Open.

    The sixth seed saved match point in the fourth set and rallied from 0-3 in the fifth set to complete a 6-1 6-7 (7-9) 5-7 7-6 (7-2) 6-4 success on Court Simonne-Mathieu.

    Teenager Alcaraz enjoyed an emphatic start against his fellow Spaniard, but the experienced Ramos-Vinolas showed admirable poise to take the second and third sets in Paris on Wednesday.

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    But he crumbled on his own serve at 5-4 in the fourth, and from there Alcaraz's greater mobility and relentlessness when chasing seemingly lost causes had the 19-year-old looking the favourite.

    Eventually he came out on top after the longest match of his fledgling career at four hours and 34 minutes, setting up a third-round clash with Sebastian Korda.

    "You always have nerves in the match, but I think today I wasn't nervous," said Alcaraz.

    "Just maybe at the end of the fourth when I had the match point [to save]. I maybe thought I was one point away from losing, but just try not to think that I'm in the French Open.

    "I'm trying to enjoy the moment. I think that in the fourth set, and in the fifth, I smile with my team.

    "I enjoy the battles. I want to play big battles and tough battles against the best players in the world."

    Alcaraz was won four titles this year, including success at two ATP 1000 events, and feels at home playing on the show courts.

    "I'm still young, but I would say pretty experienced player now," said Alcaraz.

    "I feel comfortable playing in big stadiums, big matches, playing in grand slams. Physically. I'm strong. Mentally, I'm strong as well.

    "I think I'm ready to play these kinds of matches in these situations, these tournaments. I'm ready."

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