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Novak Djokovic Does It Again – And In More Ways Than One At The French Open

By Alix Ramsay

We have become quite blasé about surprises these past 10 days. Champions pull out of Roland Garros: what of it? Former champions lose in the early rounds: and? Qualifiers reach the quarter-finals: so? There have been so many bizarre results and upsets at the French Open this year that we are immune to them now.

But Novak Djokovic in a ‘ball-hits-line-judge-shock’ scandal – now that was worth perking up for.

It happened in the first set of the fourth round on Monday when Karen Khachanov was serving. He bombed his delivery out wide (a corker of a serve) and Djokovic flung himself at the ball with little hope of getting it. Still, he had to try. And, at full stretch, he just about got the edge of his racket to the ball only to watch in horror as it ricocheted off the frame and skewed away. It went – at full pelt – and hit the baseline judge in the side of the face, right by the left temple and cheek bone.

Karen Khachanov of Russia serves to Novak Djokovic of Serbia.

Khachanov stopped and looked; Djokovic went straight over to see if the poor man was all right. You could almost hear the sharp intake of breath from everyone in Court Philippe Chatrier. The line judge was fine. Bruised, but fine. Djokovic was unflustered and went on to win 6-4, 6-3, 6-3. Panic over.

Of course, this was nothing like the incident in New York (also in the fourth round, as fate would have it) that saw the Serb defaulted for swatting a ball away in anger and catching a line judge full in throat with it. This recent incident was an accident, pure and simple. But it was still a good yarn.

“My gosh, it was very awkward déjà vu,” Djokovic said. “I’m actually trying to find the lines person and see if he’s okay because I saw he had a little bit of a bruise, like redness, in that place in the head where the ball hit him. I hope he’s fine. I mean, he definitely dealt with it in a very strong and brave way. But it was a hit because I was very close.

“Because of what happened in New York, people, I guess, are going to make the story out of this. It has happened to me and to many other players in the last 15 years that I’ve been on the tour. I’ve seen it a lot when the ball ricochets from the racket and the frame, hits someone in the stands, or someone that is close to you or the line umpire. Yeah, it was a very awkward situation obviously.”

And on a cold, wet, day, it made for a little light relief. But it was not enough to deflect the world No.1 from his task. He has been relentless in Paris; Khachanov was his first real test and he did not break step as he headed for the last eight.

Novak Djokovic in action against Karen Khachanov.

Then again, he has been fortunate: he has played under the roof when it was needed (even if the French are still trying to find the chapter in the instruction manual about when, and how, to use their new lid). Those who have played chicken with the rain clouds on the uncovered courts have had a hell of a time since the tournament began.

You had to feel sorry for Daniel Altmaier, Pablo Carreno Busta (the bloke on the other side of the court when Djoko was defaulted last month), Ons Jabeur and Danielle Collins. There they all were, poised and ready to play their fourth round matches later in the day on Monday. And then it rained. And it rained. And it rained.

The covered court at Suzanne Lenglen as play is suspended on the outside courts due to rain during the French Open.

Even those who played earlier in the day had to deal with a wicked wind and miserable temperatures. Out on Court Suzanne Lenglen, Andrey Rublev managed to get the better of Marton Fucsovics and on Court Simonne Mathieu, Laura Siegemund managed to do likewise with Paula Badosa before the heavens opened. But the other four? They had to wait to see if they would get on court at all.

Laura Siegemund hits a forehand during her 4th round match against Paula Badosa.

Actually, Siegemund had time to win and pause for a mid-match, two-course meal. She had been feeling a bit ropey before she got on court and had not been able to face proper food. She tried to force down a protein bar at the start of the match but it was no good. Then, as the match wore on, she felt better. And then she felt hungry. While her opponent took a medical time out, she nipped over to her physio and grabbed a bowl of noodles. Forking her way through that, she rounded off her repast with a cereal bar.

“I was trying to get some carbs in,” she explained later. “I tried the bar. Couldn’t get it down really. I tried. So I asked my physio to bring me something else. I just wanted to get some carb, some potato or rice, whatever. You have to listen to the body. The body kind of tells you what you need.

“Yeah, but it doesn’t matter. She was taking a medical at that point so I could actually. Probably looks weird having a fork and eating like that, but better than low sugar anyway. I preferred to try to get some energy back in the body.”

Paula Badosa of Spain receives treatment during her 4th round match against Laura Siegemund.

It worked a treat: she rattled through the rest of the second set to win 7-5, 6-2 and now plays Petra Kvitova. But back to the rain.

We cannot blame the FFT for the weather but, surely, someone must have thought ahead: if we hold an outdoor tournament in October, the chances are that it will rain at some point.

And given that only 1,000 spectators are allowed on site each day, it is not as if moving matches from court to court would cause a major ticketing issue. So why didn’t the FFT look at the forecast (which had looked bleak for days) and put all the matches due to be played without a roof on at the same time?

It is not as if they don’t have enough courts at Roland Garros. But this is France and they take the greatest pride in doing things their way. Even if it makes no sense.

By the time we got to 8pm, Jabeur and Collins had been hanging around Roland Garros for 11 hours. And then, finally, they were sent home. They would be recalled on Tuesday (and would be playing on Chatrier so, come hell or high water, their match would go ahead) while Carreno Busta and Altmaier were told they would play on Chatrier once Kenin and Fiona Ferro had finished. At which point, Kenin took the match to a third set.

By the time they were allowed on court, it was heading towards 9pm. PCB does not play quickly; Altmaier, a qualifier with a huge heart and a game built on the template of Stan Wawrinka, does not give in. This had the potential to go on for days. Even if it turned out to be straight sets, it would not be swift.

Daniel Altmaier of Germany in action against Pablo Carreno Busta of Spain.

That means that the human metronome that is Novak Djokovic was safely tucked up in his ‘sort-of’ bubble hotel while his next opponent was grafting late into the night.

And if the winner of the PCB-Altmaier slugfest fancied a late-night meal, he would be hard pressed to find one. Paris is now back in semi-lockdown (bars, restaurants and cafes are all closed) and if room service is not available at the hotel (“Non, mon ami: la cuisine est fermée.) it will be a grim night.

Novak Djokovic reacts after winning against Karen Khachanov.

“Liberté, Egalité, Fraternité” is France’s national motto. But there ain’t no liberté in lockdown; there ain’t no egalité at the French Open and there ain’t no fraternité when a grand slam title is at stake. C’est la vie, mon braves; c’est la vie.