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After Months of Off-Court Drama, Novak Djokovic Is Back to Business at the French Open

In his first Grand Slam match in 253 days, the 20-time major champion left us with an unmistakable feeling that he is back.

Novak Djokovic won his first-round match Monday at the French Open. In other news bulletins from Paris, the Eiffel Tower attracted a tourist, a man went pfft, wine accompanied a meal, and the renovation of Notre Dame continued apace. Now closer to age 40 than to 30—he turned 35 on Sunday—Djokovic is playing in the 67th major of his gilded career. The last time he lost in the first round: 2006. Playing in his 18th French Open, Djokovic hasn’t lost before the quarterfinals since 2009.

On this rainy evening, Djokovic was forced to perform under the roof on Court Chatrier. No matter. He was at his Djokovic-est. He hit his serving spots. He returned with precision. He turned defense into offense. And he made tidy work of his opponent, Yoshi Nishioka of Japan, 6-3, 6-1, 6-0. The French don’t have a perfect direct translation for “business as usual.” This, though, was it.

But in tennis, as in life, context is everything. And for Djokovic, Monday came freighted with all sorts of meaning. It had been 253 days since his previous match at a major on Sept. 12, when he lost in the 2021 U.S. Open final, snuffing out his bid to become the first player since the ’80s to win the Grand Slam—all four majors in one calendar year.

Novak Djokovic

Djokovic’s return to the French Open on Monday marked his first Grand Slam appearance since the 2021 U.S. Open men’s singles final. 

Since then? Djokovic … deep breath … played cat-and-mouse games with his unvaccinated status; contracted COVID; flew to Melbourne for the 2022 Australian Open; became an international cause celebre upon arrival; faced deportation from Australia; was trolled by Irish airline Ryanair; drew immeasurable ire from some; drew immeasurable support from others; watched Rafael Nadal win the Australian Open—the tournament Djokovic has owned for the past decade—and overtake him in the GOAT race with 21 career majors; missed top-shelf tournaments on account of his vaccine status; returned to tennis; lost, sometimes perplexingly, at his first four events; regained his form, winning the Rome event earlier this month; returned to the French Open as the favorite to defend his title and climb back into a tie with Nadal.

Otherwise, it’s been an unremarkable eight or so months.

As organized and precise and businesslike as Djokovic performs his tennis duties, he can be sloppy and scattershot in carrying out his off-court affairs. But that’s it. He is not a “tennis bad boy” as the Australian media comically deemed him. He is not a jerk. He is not even a narcissist. Often, quite the opposite.

Being cast as such exacted a price—on his mood, and on his tennis. With some detachment from the farce in Australia, here is what he told Tennis Channel in April: “It was a situation I never faced before, as many years as I've been on the tour, being involved with tennis politics, the press, everything. … I consider myself familiar with all the aspects of my life, but still that was something completely unexpected. So, yeah, it did take a toll on me—I think more mentally and emotionally than physically. I was just trying to figure things out, go back to that optimal state of mind and body and soul.”

He came to Paris not just as a (the?) favorite, but also a fan favorite. Wearing France’s Lacoste and speaking French, he hugged back. On Saturday—the day before the tournament began and other stars were sightseeing or relaxing at their hotels—Djokovic was on the grounds, hitting trick shots and posing for selfies during a Kids Day event. He was full of gracious quotes, straddling the baseline between confident and cocky.

He said: “Reliving the memories from last year is something that obviously gives me goose bumps and motivation to try to replicate that, if I can say that.”

He can. Two weeks ago, Djokovic was without a title in 2022, without match play, without form and without confidence. Monday night, he won his sixth straight match without dropping a set. Crisis averted.

One match is less than 15 percent of the way to winning a major. Djokovic has a long way to go. He can lose and he can self-sabotage. He can lose the crowd. Monday, he let loose a dramatic roar that drew boos from a crowd that, not wrongly, found it exceeding histrionic. Djokovic won the subsequent point and roared even louder. There’s a metaphor tucked in there. Still, there was an unmistakable sense that he is back.

Tennis careers have never been longer. Tennis plots have never changed faster. After dispatching his opponent Monday night, Djokovic performed his trademark gesture to the crowd. He gave an on-court interview. He signed autographs. He walked off smiling. The court may have been clay, but for Djokovic, the surface was back to being paved.

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