Djokovic v Kovacevic: Things we learned

Third seed cruises to maintain flawless first-round record in Paris

Novak Djokovic, Roland-Garros 2023, first round© Nicolas Gouhier/FFT
 - Dan Imhoff

The number next to Novak Djokovic’s name is the least of his concerns in Paris this fortnight.

While he entered without the top seeding for the first time since 2018, the Serbian sounded an immediate warning in Paris on Monday.

Looking fit after struggling with an elbow injury, he is primed to contend for the silverware again following a relatively straightforward opening against Grand Slam debutant Aleksandar Kovacevic.

Here’s what we learned from his 6-3, 6-2, 7-6(1) victory.

Djokovic allays fitness worries

A 22-time major champion pitted against a 24-year-old with just one tour-level victory to his name; there was a sizeable gulf in experience between the two to say the least.

Arguably the greatest concern swirling about Djokovic entering his 19th Roland-Garros campaign was what condition his 36-year-old body was in.

Only last month, he admitted his right elbow was not in “ideal shape” following a surprise third-round exit to Lorenzo Musetti in Monte-Carlo.

A recurring complaint, it stymied much chance of building momentum on the clay, where he registered a pair of quarter-final departures leading in.

Fortunately, there was no sign of the elbow sleeve he had recently sported as he swung freely throughout the two-hour, 26-minute display.

Novak Djokovic 1er tour Roland-Garros 2023©Nicolas Gouhier / FFT

Numbers mount in third seed's favour

Djokovic compiled the numbers where it mattered most in his first Grand Slam outing since he snared a 10th Australian Open title in January.

Monday’s triumph improved his record to 19-0 at the first hurdle in Paris and was his 65th straight opening-round win, equalling Roger Federer’s streak.

He has not lost in the first round at a major since falling to American Paul Goldstein at the 2006 Australian Open.

Djokovic’s 41 winners, including 10 aces, an impressive tally on a blustery day, and he was not shy in coming forward, picking off 73 per cent of 26 net points.

Next up, Hungarian Marton Fucsovics, a player he has not fallen to in four encounters.

American’s idol steals the show

Sharing a Serbian background has its benefits when plying your trade in Djokovic’s shadows.

After Kovacevic let match points slip in final-round qualifying at the 2021 US Open, Djokovic invited the former college player to join a fitness training session before later extending the invite to train in Serbia.

It wasn’t the pair’s first encounter.

After watching an 18-year-old Djokovic defeat Gael Monfils in the opening round of the 2005 US Open, Kovacevic had his photograph taken with his idol.

Almost 18 years later, he finally shared the stage with said hero – even if a second tour-level victory and first on clay proved a bridge too far.

"He played really well, and he was handling himself very good there mentally, hanging in there," Djokovic said. "I served for the match, he broke me. I mean, credit to him for fighting spirit."

Djokovic leaves no stone unturned

While Kovacevic hailed Djokovic for reaching out two years ago, it came as a double-edged sword.

Where some of his ilk avoids referring to prospective threats by name, Djokovic makes it known when he has the lowdown.

His No.114th-ranked opponent was not the unknown quantity many would have assumed.

Before the pair’s first showdown the third seed made mention of the New Yorker’s talent, namely his single-handed backhand.

He also flagged that his opponent did not have the benefit of having grown up playing on clay, however, intricate details he no doubt noted from their previous hit-outs.

Despite failing to serve out the straight-sets victory at 5-4 and struggling in the wind, it was a largely clinical performance from the two-time Roland-Garros champion.

"I think I played really well and held things under control for two-and-a-half sets and then lost my serve and things got a little bit on a wrong side for me," Djokovic said. "But, you know, I managed to hold my nerves and played pretty much a perfect tie-break.

"I can always play better, I know I can do it, but considering also the conditions, they were quite tricky today with a lot of wind. It was a good match."