Djokovic v Sandgren: Things We Learned

The 2016 champion begins his quest for a second Roland-Garros title with a decisive victory over Tennys Sandgren.

Novak Djokovic, Roland Garros 2021, first round© Philippe Montigny/FFT
 - Chris Oddo

After an inauspicious start to the clay-court season, Novak Djokovic is suddenly producing vintage form on the red clay.

At Rome he slid past Stefanos Tsitsipas and Lorenzo Sonego on a double-duty day that sent him through to the final against the 'King of Clay' Rafael Nadal.

Just over a week later, Djokovic is back in Paris and over the first hurdle. He eased past American Tennys Sandgren 6-2, 6-4, 6-2. Here’s what we learned from his victory.

Statement made: Novak’s a title contender 

As the only active player that has ever defeated Nadal on Court Philippe-Chatrier, Djokovic will always gain mention as one of the more likely candidates to threaten for the title in Paris.

But in 2021, given the arc of his clay-court season, it is looking more and more like Djokovic can give Nadal a real run for his money if the pair end up meeting in the semi-finals. 

Djokovic knows that he will have to raise his level considerably if he is to have a chance against Nadal, and he played like a player on a mission to do just that on Tuesday. 

Novak Djokovic, Roland Garros 2021, first round© Philippe Montigny/FFT

“The last four or five matches that I lost to him on clay - some close ones, some that he dominated - were probably due to the level of tennis that I played that wasn't just meeting his level, when his level on clay is always there, always very high,” he said on Monday in his pre-tournament press conference.

“If you don't meet him there, if you don't produce a high level of performance on this surface, you have no chance to win the match on this surface against him.”

A refreshed world No.1 

After claiming his 83rd career title over the weekend at Belgrade, Djokovic appears to have all his ducks in a row emotionally.

His even-keeled performance against Sandgren gave clear indication that he is very much at peace with his game and locked into his mission in Paris. Even when he found himself in trouble on Tuesday, facing multiple break points in the second set, or when he hit a few errant shots, there was a decisive push to regain control.

Djokovic believes that his decision to play in Belgrade last week will help him in the long run, and he explained his reasoning on court after the match.

"I decided to change it up this year, since we restarted the tennis season last August, basically every single week was a bubble," he said. "A lot of restrictions, and we couldn't really move much. I think last week was the first week on the ATP Tour that we had an opportunity to be free and move around at our own risk and responsibility."

Djokovic feels that the victory in Serbia - and the emotional lift he received from his fans - will help him immensely in Paris.

"They gave me a lot of energy and encouragement," he said. "I felt great. I don't think that I lost a lot of energy there, on the contrary I gained a lot, so hopefully I'll be able to carry that into this tournament.

First serve with a purpose 

Djokovic made things far less complicated than they could have been against the pesky Sandgren by executing magnificently behind his first serve.

He won 11 of 12 first-serve points in the opening set, and never faced a break point. In the second set he won 20 of 24 points behind the first offering, and when he was in trouble he was close to perfect. 

Djokovic also made first serves on five of six break points he faced in the second set and saved them all.

Nothing changed in set three. Djokovic continued the trend, winning 11 of 13 first-serve points to make it 42 of 49 on the evening.

"He was close to breaking my serve. I somehow found really a lot of serves when I needed them and that got me out of trouble," Djokovic said. "Overall I am very pleased with the way I felt on the court tonight."

Efficient serving is a perfect recipe for keeping matches simple in the first week of a Grand Slam, and Djokovic has already found it.

No seeds before week two

The draw gods have given the world No.1 a mixed bag in Paris.

All the attention has been on Djokovic's potential quarter-final with Roger Federer or Matteo Berrettini and - of course - his projected semi-final with Nadal.

But the draw has broken open quite nicely for the top seed in the next few rounds. He'll face Pablo Cuevas in the second round and won't see a seeded player until the round of 16. In fact, there is only one seeded player that Djokovic could face before the quarter-finals - No.21 seed Alex de Minaur.

In a scenario where every extra moment of rest could do him will in the second week, Djokovic has an opportunity to find himself in perfect shape from the quarter-finals on if he continues to perform to this standard.