PARIS – For two sets and more than two hours at the French Open on Monday, Novak Djokovic was outplayed by a 19-year-old opponent who made his Grand Slam debut.
And yet, to hear Djokovic tell afterwards, he had the child exactly where he wanted it.
After Djokovic dropped a pair of tiebreakers to start the game in the fourth round, things suddenly moved from being big behind to his best tennis. He won 13 games in a row in a dominant performance before Lorenzo Musetti quit due to back pain and cramps while trailing in the fifth set.
The result officially goes into the books as retirement. The result when Musetti quit showed Djokovic 6-7 (7), 6-7 (2), 6-1, 6-0, 4-0.
“I like to play young guys in the best of five because I feel like loving even if they lead a sentence or two, as was the case today, I still like my chances,” said the top seed Djokovic. who scored 19 points in a row after the start, “because I feel physically fit and know how to wear my opponent down.”
Musetti, a talented Italian who was so good from the start with his one-handed backhand and tremendous feel for the ball, is hardly used to this best-of-five-set format in the majors and took a medical break after the fourth.
“It made no sense to keep playing. I couldn’t win any points or stay in the rallies. It was difficult for me to move,” said Musetti. “I was at my limit.”
Djokovic ended his breakpoint chances 9 to 9 and a 53-30 lead on the winners.
How shocking was it to see that Musetti even won the first sets against the 34-year-old player who was aiming for his second French Open championship and the 19th Grand Slam trophy overall?
“Even for me,” Musetti later admitted, “it was a bit of a surprise.”
Djokovic had never been beaten by anyone as low as Musetti # 76 at Roland Garros. Djokovic’s only previous loss to a teenager at the French Open came in 2006 to a man named Rafael Nadal. And Djokovic went into the fourth round on day 14-0.
Also, consider Djokovic’s most recent form: he was 10-0 in Grand Slam games in 2021 and hadn’t passed more than four games in any set in Paris – let alone a full set – while losing just 23 games in total on Monday .
Finally, Djokovic celebrated his fifth career comeback after two sets back by limiting his mistakes and making Musetti look who he is: someone with a lot of promise but not a lot of experience.
While Djokovic had to fight back on Monday, Nadal continued as usual.
The defending champion defeated Jannik Sinner 7: 5, 6: 3, 6: 0, reached the quarter-finals and expanded his series of sets won at Roland Garros to 35.
Sinner, who was placed in 18th place, had the chance to become the first player since Dominic Thiem in the 2019 final to drop Nadal here.
But when serving the first set at 5: 4, the Italian was broken with love. He then lost the next six games to go 4-0 in the second set.
In this 2019 final, Thiem won the second set 7-5 to level the game.
Nadal won the next two sets to take his 12th title here, won all 21 sets when he added # 13 last year, and hasn’t lost a set this year.
The third-placed Spaniard will face number 10 Diego Schwartzman in the quarter-finals after beating the Argentine in the semi-finals last year.
Schwartzman saved seven set points in the first set on the way to defeating Jan-Lennard Struff 7: 6 (9), 6: 4, 7: 5. Schwartzman was a semi-finalist at Roland Garros in 2020.
Djokovic reached his record in the 15th quarter-finals in Paris and in the 49th major quarter-finals overall. His match this round will be against another Italian, Matteo Berrettini, who sat 9th, who had to swing without his racket on Monday.
Because the man Berrettini was to face in the fourth round, 20-time Grand Slam winner Roger Federer, retired to rest his surgically repaired right knee and the rest of his 39-year-old body with a view of Wimbledon leave this month.
One afternoon that started with brilliant sunshine before the clouds got in the way, Djokovic’s two-handed backhand, his best shot, was gone. Path.
By the second game of the third set he had already amassed two dozen casual mistakes on that wing alone.
And while Djokovic is usually well versed in the tie-breaker – he made absolutely no mistakes in the three tie-breaks of his Wimbledon final victory in 2019 against Federer – Musetti was unerring and so good in this environment with high pressure and high stakes. Musetti is now 10-0 in tour-level tiebreaker for his distinguished career.
After that, however, Djokovic took over.
“I never thought I’d win. Absolutely not,” said Musetti. “Against a champion like Djokovic you really only have one win if he shakes your hand at the end.”
Information from The Associated Press was used in this report.