Novak Djokovic had looked on course for a first Grand Slam semifinal in nearly two years, and maybe more, until he ran into inspired Italian Marco Cecchinato at Roland Garros.
The #SmashTalk team of Vivienne Christie, Piers Newbery and Leigh Rogers discusses where the 12-time Grand Slam champion goes from here, and considers the potential blockbusters to be provided by Simona Halep, Angelique Kerber, Maria Sharapova and Garbine Muguruza on Wednesday.
Piers Newbery: Only he knows the extent of any physical issues he’s coping with, and he wouldn’t be drawn on the specifics after Tuesday’s defeat, but there is no doubt that it was a particularly chastening experience for one of the game’s all-time greats. On the face of it there was much to be encouraged by on a return to the quarterfinal stage at a Grand Slam for the first time in 21 months, with a couple of hard-won victories along the way.
However, the lightning reactions and relentless line-hitting precision seem to have been dulled. It’s now two years since a shell-shocked Rafael Nadal said “I know nobody playing tennis like this ever” after peak Djokovic had thrashed him in Qatar. More encouraging than his tennis was Djokovic’s reaction to defeat on Tuesday – he could not hide the depth of his disappointment and that suggests the hunger is still there.
"He deserved to win. I know him well. He's a great guy."
— Roland-Garros (@rolandgarros) June 5, 2018
Leigh Rogers: Full credit to Marco Cecchinato for his inspired run, but unfortunately Djokovic’s return continues to be a case of ‘one step forward, two steps back’. Reaching the quarterfinals is a positive result, but a loss to an unheralded world No.72 is perplexing.
In 52 previous Grand Slam appearances, only twice had Djokovic lost to a player ranked outside the top 70 (and one was former world No.1 Marat Safin when he was ranked No.75 at Wimbledon 2008). Djokovic’s disappointment suggests he does still care – perhaps this result will reignite the competitive fire that once made him near-unbeatable?
Vivienne Christie: In a fast-tracked media conference an uncharacteristically abrupt Djokovic insisted he wasn’t “thinking about tennis” – but we all know that’s unlikely to be true. Novak’s bitter disappointment underlines a fierce desire to regain his highest level and despite a suggestion he may not play the upcoming grass season, Djokovic will also know it’s a valuable chance to recover lost ground.
In the two years since he last claimed a Slam, we’ve come to know a reactive Novak: spiritual coach Pepe Imaz employed, long-time advisor Marion Vajda temporarily replaced with high-profile coaches Andre Agassi and Radek Stepanek. Let’s hope for a more contemplative response to this latest challenge: even as he lost to a world No.72, some superb passages of play highlighted that the “old” Novak still exists. Under the stabilising influence of the recently-restored Vajda, there’s hope Djokovic can rebuild.
Leigh: Kerber and Muguruza. If Wednesday’s meeting between Halep and Kerber comes close to their incredible AO2018 semifinal, tennis fans are in for a treat. Halep has the clay credentials but Kerber has proved she can never be discounted with impressive wins over Kiki Bertens and Caroline Garcia this tournament. I’m tipping Kerber to score an upset and win in three sets.
Sharapova has a 3-0 head-to-head record against Muguruza, but all those meetings were early in the Spaniard’s career. Muguruza is more comfortable in big matches now and won’t be intimidated by Sharapova.
Happy ???????? from today pic.twitter.com/A4dVVCojlY
— Maria Sharapova (@MariaSharapova) June 2, 2018
Vivienne: Halep and Muguruza. In some ways, it’s like the Sharapova who last played the French Open three years ago has never been away. She’s seeded, into a ninth quarterfinal and playing the fierce, big-hitting tennis that’s helped her win the title twice. But in her absence, the equally powerful Muguruza stepped up to become the 2016 champion and is showing every sign of winning again this year. Like their previous three meetings it will be a close contest, but Muguruza will win this time.
After their Melbourne epic, Halep will be hoping for an easier passage into a third semifinal at Roland Garros. But the hard-court loving Kerber appears to have found her clay-court footing under the guidance of Wim Fisette. I can’t quite see the German progressing to a first French Open semifinal but I do expect her to stretch Halep to three sets.
Piers: Halep and Muguruza. There might be less hype than ahead of Serena v Sharapova – there could hardly have been more – but in pure tennis terms, Halep v Kerber is more likely to deliver a compelling match. It’s Kerber who provides the unknown factor – six years on from her last Roland Garros quarterfinal she is suddenly playing with real freedom and belief. Halep’s prowess on the surface should be enough, but she cannot afford to let her standards slip.
For Sharapova, her reward for a free-pass into the quarters after Serena’s withdrawal is to come up against a similarly daunting opponent. The win over Pliskova was arguably the best of her recent comeback, but Muguruza has the weight of shot and big-game temperament to end the Russian’s renaissance.
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