Djokovic rebounds to deny Carreno Busta

Top seed drops his first set of the tournament before locking in 10th Roland-Garros semi-final berth

Novak Djokovic, Roland Garros 2020, quarter-final@Clément Mahoudeau / FFT
 - Ravi Ubha

There is no denying Grand Slam showdowns between Novak Djokovic and Pablo Carreno Busta make for compelling viewing.

Djokovic was defaulted at the US Open last month with Carreno Busta on the other side of the net and on Wednesday at Roland-Garros he was physically out of sorts for more than a set before seeing off the ever-dogged Spaniard 4-6, 6-2, 6-3, 6-4 to reach a 10th semi-final on the red clay of Paris.

At three hours, 13 minutes, it was comfortably Djokovic’s longest match of the tournament so far and marked the first occasion he dropped a set.

But given how he looked for much of the opening frame and a half, it could have been worse. Djokovic donned tape to the back of his neck from the outset — he suffered neck issues in August at the Western & Southern Open — and repeatedly tugged at his left bicep in the first hour on Court Philippe-Chatrier. Further, he shook his left arm more than once.

Trainer Paul Ness visited Djokovic after the first set and early in the second, though the world No.1 never took a medical time-out. Later, the 33-year-old confirmed the neck and shoulder were bothering him.

“Well, I definitely didn't feel great coming into the court today,” the Serb said. “Few things happened in the warm-up. I had to deal with those physical issues coming onto the court. As the match went on, I felt better, didn't feel as much pain.

“But I don't want to take away anything from his good performance. Especially for a set and a half he was the better player, dictating the play. I was very neutral. I didn't have much energy really happening in my legs or movement or game itself.”

Djokovic’s health woes are sure to have people wondering whether it could affect his quest to become the first man in the Open Era to win each of the Grand Slams at least twice.

His opponent in the last four is a player who has beaten him twice in five meetings, Greece’s sixth-ranked Stefanos Tsitsipas.

“Obviously, I'm still in the tournament, so I don't want to reveal too much,” Djokovic said of his injury concerns. “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.”

Glancing ahead to the semi-finals, he said he was “hopefully going to be able to feel my best and play my best”.

When a reporter told Djokovic his former coach, Boris Becker, said the first set was down to memories of what happened against Carreno Busta in New York, he all but laughed it off.

Djokovic’s errant forehand after the 11th game ended in New York inadvertently felled a line judge and he was disqualified in the fourth round, accounting for his lone official defeat of 2020. 

“I told you guys many times I’m over it,” he said. “I’m not thinking about it at all. Zero per cent.”

Carreno Busta might be thinking about the chances he failed to take in the rematch. Down a set, Djokovic — who in the first set served at 40 per cent and hit 16 unforced errors, many on his usually rock-solid backhand — creaked in the third game of the second. 

Presented with a passing shot chance after a hampered Djokovic hesitated on a smash, Carreno Busta sent his forehand wide. Not long after, he was on the wrong end of a five-game losing skid.

The Spaniard managed to inch ahead in 13 of Djokovic’s 19 service games yet only converted on three of 13 break points. Three of the 10 that went astray came at 3-4 in the fourth.

“At the beginning of the match I think that I play good,” Carreno Busta said. “I take advantage of the opportunities returning.

“Then in the beginning of the second set, I have it again but didn't take advantage. That was when he start to play better. Probably it was the moment of the match that I didn't play my tennis, no? I didn't give my level.

“Probably these five, six, seven games was the worst moment of the match for me.”

The worst part of Djokovic’s season came at the US Open but he is still in contention in Paris, albeit after a significant scare.