Taking the full view of 2017—the year of his supposed decline—it would have been perfectly on brand for Novak Djokovic to lose his first match on clay. When Gilles Simon took the second set here at Monte Carlo, that outcome seemed plausible. When Simon, hitting some astonishingly clean groundstrokes, managed to break Djokovic’s serve in the final set, it seemed likely. And when, after being broken back, Simon got another break to go up 5-4 and spent the changeover calmly considering his sneakers and recovering his breath while the world No. 2 stared numbly into the void, I would have bet a small sum on it.
But then Simon failed to serve out the match. As the ball took on the weight of this potential upset, his pretty groundstrokes started getting acquainted with the net cord. He let this one slip. And so Djokovic, debuting a few new grimaces on the red clay today, escaped 6-3, 3-6, 7-5, but don’t think he’ll be worrying any of the other big dogs—Stan Wawrinka, Rafael Nadal—at his current level.
A second-round upset here would not have been as spicy as the one that inflamed rumors of Djokovic’s decline in the first place, his second-round Australian Open exit to a world No. 117. Simon, 32 in both age and world rank, has long flirted with highest levels of the sport in that characteristically French way: handsome backhand, high ceiling, but never the consistency to press past the quarterfinals of a major. (He took Djokovic to five sets at last year’s Australian Open, before bowing out in the fourth round.) Watching Simon on the clay today, you could trick yourself into thinking he was back in his top-10 form. He looked remarkably comfortable moving around, almost slip-’n-sliding into his strike zone, biding his time for the right ball to whip down the line for a winner.
Both Simon and Djokovic are born counterpunchers, consistent and clean, so when they meet—especially when they meet on the slower surface of clay—they’re prone to long, grinding exchanges that end in an exclamation point.
But sometimes that just makes for hesitant play. Here’s a good example of how when the shot-making gets slightly worse, the tennis, counterintuitively, gets much more entertaining. There are at least three balls in this rally that should’ve had a way more heat on them—not least Simon’s sheepish treatment of that first short ball—but the point keeps going and going, because the ball always waits a little longer for you on clay, because neither had the appetite for a risky winner, because these guys can always get a solid racket on the ball.
Simon couldn’t maintain that consistency in the final two games, however, and he gave up the most compelling opportunity he’s had in months. In the speculative psychology that seeps into coverage of this very psychological game, some wondered whether this was the type of gutsy win that Djokovic needs to “turn around” his 2017, woven of weird storylines: rough upset, no body fat, tabloid murmurs, and two straight losses to Nick Kyrgios, a punk who can worm his way into Djokovic’s typically steely head. But it’s hard to look at this flawed match and see it as positive proof of anyone turning anything around.