Published: 10:55, May 22, 2024
Headaches aplenty for Djokovic before French Open title defense
By Reuters
Serbian tennis player Novak Djokovic gestures during a press conference on the eve of his first match at the ATP 250 Geneva Open tennis tournament, in Geneva, on May 21, 2024. (PHOTO / AFP)

Novak Djokovic will hope to shake off a freak head injury and get his bumpy season back on track at the French Open, where the out-of-form Serb faces a daunting task to defend his title and retain his world number one ranking.

The 24-time Grand Slam champion captured his third Roland Garros title in the absence of the injured Rafa Nadal en route to winning three of the four majors in a spectacular 2023 but has struggled to replicate that dominance this season.

Djokovic's bid for a record-extending 11th Australian Open title was ended by eventual champion Jannik Sinner in the semi-finals in January, before the 36-year-old fell to lucky loser Luca Nardi early at Indian Wells to send alarm bells ringing.

Although it would be premature to write him off, Djokovic said he would need to improve drastically to win a fourth French Open trophy and go past Mats Wilander, Ivan Lendl and Gustavo Kuerten into third in the list of Open Era Paris champions

Having been stunned by Casper Ruud in the Monte Carlo semi-finals, Djokovic was thrashed 6-2 6-3 by Alejandro Tabilo in the third round of Rome earlier this month, two days after being hit on the head by a fan's water bottle while signing autographs.

"The way I felt on the court was just completely like a different player had entered my shoes. No rhythm, no tempo, no balance whatsoever on any shot," Djokovic said of the defeat that hampered his Roland Garros preparation.

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"It's a bit concerning."

Reports in the Serbian media said scans had cleared Djokovic of serious injury ahead of the tournament starting on May 26 and he accepted a late wildcard to compete in Geneva this week.

But having skipped Madrid before Rome, Djokovic could still head to Paris slightly undercooked with some fans fearing cracks are finally appearing in his armour.

Serbia's Novak Djokovic returns to France's Corentin Moutet during the Men's ATP Rome Open tennis tournament at Foro Italico in Rome on May 10, 2024. (PHOTO / AFP)

Although it would be premature to write him off, Djokovic said he would need to improve drastically to win a fourth French Open trophy and go past Mats Wilander, Ivan Lendl and Gustavo Kuerten into third in the list of Open Era Paris champions.

Adding to Djokovic's headache is the emergence of Italian Sinner as another genuine threat to his Grand Slam ambitions alongside Spain's Wimbledon champion Carlos Alcaraz.

After a flat display in his defeat by Sinner in Melbourne, Djokovic split with long-time coach Goran Ivanisevic and fitness coach Marco Panichi to rediscover his best form for the French Open, Wimbledon and Paris Olympics.

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Even if the move helps Djokovic capture a record 25th major, Sinner could still rise to number one for the first time on June 10 by reaching the Paris final, although doubts remain over the youngster's fitness following a hip injury.