Novak Djokovic told the media gathered for the start of the Monte Carlo Masters on Sunday that he hoped that the tournament would mark the start of “another tennis life.”
That new existence began in nervous fashion Tuesday, as Djokovic barely survived a 2½-hour battle against Gilles Simon, a man whom Djokovic had beaten 10 consecutive times going all the way back to the fall of 2008.
Djokovic ultimately prevailed 6-3, 3-6, 7-5, but not without a lot of help from an unlikely accomplice across the net. Simon punched through with a critical third-set break to find himself serving for the match at 5-4, thanks to an error-strewn game by Djokovic. But Simon’s nerve failed and he dropped the next three games without incident.
If this is an indication of what the new life Djokovic hungers, he may find himself mulling that proverb, “Be careful what you wish for, it may come true.”
Djokovic is entering the phase of his career where much will depend on how he deals with this challenge. For better or worse, he seems to have turned a corner. His intensity level may never be the same again. He speaks with many rhetorical flourishes and employs the vocabulary of self-help manuals, but it all amounts to what he undoubtedly describe as his “evolution.”
Back in the winter, he told the Serbian talk show RTS that while he’d like to be No. 1 in the world again, it isn’t the “main priority.” The problem is, without motivation of that kind, it becomes a lot harder to get through matches like the one Djokovic survived Tuesday in Monte Carlo.
Djokovic ought to be able to perform at his peak in Monte Carlo. He’s had ample time to recover mentally from those back-to-back beatings inflicted on him by Nick Kyrgios in his past two tournaments. Djokovic must be physically well-rested, as he’s played just one singles match (a Davis Cup gimme) since mid-March. He’s playing this week on the closest thing he has to a home court, and revels in it.
“This week I can sleep in my own bed and I am with my loved ones,” Djokovic said Sunday.
Just how well Djokovic sleeps in that bed will be determined by whether his close escape Tuesday gives him confidence or adds to the growing sense of his vulnerability.