BELGRADE (Reuters) – If recent form is anything to go by, world number one Novak Djokovic is perfectly poised to launch a challenge for his second French Open title and an 18th major honour after one of the lowest ebbs of his trophy-laden career.
Djokovic was disqualified from the U.S. Open earlier this month after hitting a line judge in the neck with a petulant swipe of the ball but he bounced back in style by winning his fifth Italian Open title on Monday.
The Serb’s 7-5 6-3 defeat of Argentine Diego Schwartzman brought him a record 36th ATP Masters crown, helping put behind an acrimonious exit at Flushing Meadows during a fourth-round clash with Spaniard Pablo Carrenno Busta.
Djokovic, who stretched his hot streak to 31 wins in 2020, acknowledged the success in Rome had helped him overcome the disappointment of being defaulted in New York in an incident that put him in the spotlight for all the wrong reasons.
“I did experience mentally some ups and downs in the first four-five days after that happened,” he said.
“Obviously having a tournament a week after helped a lot because I really wanted to get on the court and get whatever trace of that out of the way.
“It was a great week, a very challenging week,” Djokovic said after grinding down Schwartzman at the Foro Italico, having fought back from dropping the opening three games in front of a smattering of fans.
“I found my best tennis when I needed it most. Now we turn to Paris and I couldn’t ask for a better tournament here in Rome.”
There is little doubt that Djokovic will face a strong challenge at the French Open from the tournament’s record 12-times winner Rafa Nadal and Austrian Dominic Thiem, who won his maiden grand slam title in New York.
Nadal was stunned by Schwartman in the Italian Open quarter-finals but Djokovic stressed the Spaniard was still the obvious favourite to triumph in Paris, adding that he’d have to raise his game in order to be a contender.
“He’s the player who has the highest chance of being in the final… if it’s Roland Garros it’s Rafa you bet on,” said Djokovic.
“I don’t think I played my best tennis (in Rome) to be honest, I don’t want to sound arrogant here. I am very satisfied and pleased to win a title. I know I still have a couple of gears.
“Hopefully I’ll be able to raise that level for the French Open because that’s going to be necessary if I want to go deep in the tournament.”
In addition to the Italian Open, Djokovic also won the Australian Open, the Dubai Championship and the Western & Southern Open this season, having also lifted the inaugural ATP Cup with Serbia.
He will now need to hit top gear at Roland Garros if he is to erase the U.S. Open debacle, where he was the hot favourite after Nadal had pulled out due to COVID-19 concerns while Roger Federer is out for the season after knee surgery.
(Writing by Zoran Milosavljevic; Editing by Christian Radnedge)