Djokovic v Davidovich Fokina: Things we learned

Two-time champion withstands dogged fight from Spaniard to reach second week

Novak Djokovic, Roland-Garros 2023, third round© Corinne Dubreuil/FFT
 - Dan Imhoff

Novak Djokovic has survived the first serious test of his 19th Roland-Garros campaign, outlasting Spanish warrior Alejandro Davidovich Fokina in a three-hour, 36-minute showdown.

Two of the fittest athletes among their peers, the pair’s fourth encounter – their first at Grand Slam level – had all the makings of a physical battle.

Neither failed to hold up their end of the bargain.

The pair stood toe to toe through two gruelling sets before Djokovic rode his advantage to a 7-6(4), 7-6(5), 6-2 triumph.

Here's what we learned from Djokovic's third round.

Time and timing of the essence

Almost three hours passed and the pair had barely finished the opening two sets.

It was an extremely difficult pill to swallow for the world No.34 after he failed to snare either.

He was not without his chances. For large stretches of both sets Davidovich Fokina was the better player, whipping the crowd up with every drop shot and intermittent lob.

As is so often the case with Djokovic on these stages though it typically boils down to how he delivers in the clutch moments.

Twice Davidovich Fokina was up a break in the opening set, including when he served for it at 6-5, only to see it vanish from his reach.

The Serbian only made his statement more profound when he ended the tiebreak with a forehand return struck with such venom the pop from his strings could probably be heard from the adjacent Court 7.  

Second set déjà vu

Even in the second set, Davidovich Fokina could not make good on a set point against the Djokovic serve and despite a valiant charge in stealing back the tiebreak, it was his last hurrah.

“I don't remember when I played last time three hours, two sets. Maybe against Nadal in one of our matches," Djokovic said.

"This was looking like if I lost one of the first two sets, it was looking like it was going to go four, five hours. It was just a kind of a day and conditions that were I think very challenging for both players physically.

"Lots of exchanges. Serve was really not an advantage for either of us."

Revenge comes sweet for Djokovic

The two-time champion had fallen to Davidovich Fokina in their most recent meeting, in Monte-Carlo last year, in a closely-fought three-set tussle.

The Spaniard was under no illusions though this was an entirely different prospect, given his opponent was well short on matches last time round.

This was the Serbian’s preferred domain – best-of-five sets on a Grand Slam arena.

While he did not concede a set in his opening two rounds the third seed was forced to ride out a shaky set via a tie-break against both Aleksandar Kovacevic and Marton Fucsovics.

Those blips paled in comparison the tiebreak tussles he had on his hands on Friday.

"It was cat and mouse every single point, trying to outsmart your opponent," Djokovic said. "We were doing a lot of running. Not just left, right, but forward and backward, especially when he was playing from that end where he is playing against the wind he was drop-shotting a lot.

"He was making me work for every point... In the end of the day when I draw a line, very content to win this match in three sets."

Novak Djokovic, Roland-Garros 2023, third round© Corinne Dubreuil/FFT

Spaniard relishes the big stage on clay

Davidovich Fokina had weathered the storm before a French crowd twice already this week, ending the hopes of France’s next two great prospects, Arthur Fils and Luca Van Assche back-to-back.

He must have breathed a sigh of relief when he finally had a crowd on his side as the underdog on Chatrier.

While a marked step up in stage and opponent, the Spaniard was far from overawed

Two years ago, Davidovich Fokina announced himself in Paris with a five-set defeat of last year’s runner-up Casper Ruud en route to his maiden Grand Slam quarter-final.

While unable to reach the second week for the second time this year, he demonstrated more than enough to suggest 2021 was not an aberration on his Grand Slam journey.

“He contested very, very well. He's an amazing fighter, amazing player, not many weaknesses in his game,” Djokovic said.

Third seed comes up clutch when it matters

Through to the fourth round for the 14th straight year, Djokovic extended his record against the Spaniard to 3-1.

While both players struggled immensely on serve – the Serbian won just 65 per cent of first-serve points, with his opponent having claimed little more than half.

His 27 winners were seven fewer but he coughed up far fewer unforced errors – 38 to 51.

Next up for the Serbian is Polish 13th seed Hubert Hurkacz or Peruvian Juan Pablo Varillas. 

“Best-of-five, these kind of matches, on the slowest surface in the sport, it takes a lot of effort but we all have to believe in ourselves and try to make the most out of it so I'm proud of the performance today for sure,” Djokovic said.