Novak Djokovic typically pounds his groundstrokes, not his own legs and left arm. But his laborious quarterfinal victory on Wednesday over Pablo Carreño Busta of Spain was strange from the start.
Djokovic, the world No. 1 from Serbia, walked onto the red clay of Roland Garros wearing a large white anti-inflammatory patch on the back of his neck and proceeded to drift and wince his way through the opening set: missing first serves and passing shots by the bunch.
Would it be a tough day at the office? Or simply a tough hour at the office?
The next three sets produced a familiar answer, as Djokovic, a champion who is rarely as down and out as he might appear, worked his way into a much better place to win 4-6, 6-3, 6-2, 6-4.
His victory in three hours and 10 minutes put him into his 10th French Open semifinal. He will face a younger man playing in his first: Stefanos Tsitsipas, the No. 5 seed.
Djokovic had neck problems recently during a two-tournament swing in New York, where he withdrew from doubles at the Western & Southern Open and considered withdrawal from the singles draw. On Wednesday, he declined to be specific about what was troubling him but repeatedly grabbed at his upper left arm, pounding it with a fist at one stage in the first set (and hitting his legs with his racket in frustration at another stage). He was treated on some changeovers, with a physiotherapist working on his triceps as if Djokovic were having radiating pain or stiffness.
“I had some neck issues and some shoulder issues; I’ll just say that,” Djokovic said. “I don’t want to get really too much into it. Obviously I’m still in the tournament, so I don’t want to reveal too much. I’m feeling OK. I think as the match progressed, I warmed up my body and the pain kind of faded away. It allowed me to play better and better and feel better.”
In Friday’s first semifinal, Rafael Nadal of Spain, the 12-time French Open champion, will face Diego Schwartzman of Argentina, another player making his first appearance in the final four at Roland Garros.
A Nadal-Djokovic final is tantalizingly close. Nadal is aiming to win his 20th Grand Slam singles title and match Roger Federer’s men’s record. Djokovic is trying to close the gap by winning his 18th.
But upsets are not out of the question. Schwartzman defeated Nadal for the first time on clay in the Italian Open last month, and the low-bouncing conditions in Paris this year give him a better chance of coping with Nadal’s whipping forehand topspin.
Tsitsipas has been in sparkling form since rallying from two sets down to win his opening-round match against Jaume Munar. On Wednesday, Tsitsipas defeated the dangerous Andrey Rublev in straight sets — 7-5, 6-2, 6-3 — just 10 days after Rublev had defeated him on clay in the final of the Hamburg Open.
Tsitsipas, 22, is one of the leaders of tennis’s next generation, marketed by the men’s tour as the “NextGen” in an attempt to build some new star power to prepare for the time when the sport’s Big Three of Federer, 39, Djokovic, 33, and Nadal, 34, is no longer blocking everybody else’s sun.
Tsitsipas, a thoughtful Greek who makes you remember that philosophy is a Greek word, was asked on Wednesday if this French Open could be a springboard for the younger set.
“First of all, I would like to tell you that I’m not a NextGen player anymore,” Tsitsipas said. “I’m a proper adult. Second of all, for sure it’s going to come at some point. I mean, let’s face it. Yeah, the Big Three have been there for a long time. I don’t feel like it’s going to be the same in five, six years’ time.”
It was already different at the United States Open in New York just last month when Dominic Thiem, a 27-year-old from Austria, became the first men’s player since 2016 to win a Grand Slam singles title who was not one of the Big Three. (Federer didn’t play in the event after having a second operation this year on his right knee in June.)
But that breakthrough also had much to do with what happened to Djokovic when he faced Carreño Busta at the U.S. Open. Trailing 5-6 in the opening set of the fourth round, Djokovic lost his serve, removed a ball from his pocket and whacked it in frustration toward the back of the court, inadvertently hitting a line umpire in the throat.
He was disqualified and later apologized on social media, saying he would use the episode as an opportunity to look inward.
Less resilient players might have needed time to recover from that setback, but Djokovic has responded by going back on a winning streak: beating Schwartzman to win the Italian Open and roaring through his first four matches in Paris before Wednesday’s struggle.
“I told you guys many times I’m over it,” Djokovic said of the U.S. Open default. “I’m not thinking about it at all. I mean 0 percent.”
For now, he has yet to lose a completed match in 2020, compiling an astounding 36-1 record. But he has only a 3-2 edge over Tsitsipas and has lost to him twice on hardcourts. This will be their first meeting in a Grand Slam tournament.
In the women’s singles tournament, No. 4 seed Sofia Kenin reached her first French Open semifinal with a 6-4, 4-6, 6-0 victory over Danielle Collins, her unseeded American compatriot.
Kenin, 21, has had the best season of any woman in the Grand Slam tournaments, also winning her first major title at the Australian Open in February and reaching the fourth round of the U.S. Open (Wimbledon was canceled this year because of the coronavirus pandemic).
She is 6-0 in three-set matches in the majors this year and even said on Wednesday that she preferred to go three sets.
“Sarcasm,” Kenin clarified later.
She will face Petra Kvitova, the No. 7 seed, in the semifinals in Paris on Thursday. Kvitova, also a French Open semifinalist in 2012, defeated Laura Siegemund 6-3, 6-3 in their quarterfinal. The women’s tournament has been filled with upsets, and Kenin versus Kvitova will be only the fourth match between seeded players in this draw.
Tsitsipas upset Federer to reach the semifinals of the 2019 Australian Open and won last year’s ATP Finals, the prestigious year-end tournament in London for the top eight men’s players in the rankings.
“He’s been playing the tennis of his life really in the last 12 months,” Djokovic said. “Winning the world tour finals, just being very consistent on all surfaces with his results. He has an all-around game.”
He also has weapons: with his serve, forehand, all-court athleticism and a versatile one-handed backhand with which he seems able to produce power even when the ball is out of most players’ ideal hitting zones.
But Tsitsipas has shown a tendency to crumple with victory in sight since the restart of the tour in August. At the U.S. Open, he failed to convert six match points or hold a 5-1 lead in the fourth set against Borna Coric, losing in the third round.
In the Hamburg Open final, he served for the match against Rublev and was broken, but he served out the victory at love on Wednesday and appears to be gathering momentum.
“I expect a really tough, tough match: tough challenge for both of us,” Djokovic said. “Semifinals of a Grand Slam, this is what you expect. You expect to play a top five, top 10 player. This is what I get. I’m hopefully going to be able to feel my best and play my best.”