Djokovic vs Herbert: Things we learned

Top seed wins after admitting ‘low expectations, but high hopes’ in pre-event press conference

Novak Djokovic, first round, Roland-Garros 2024©️Nicolas Gouhier / FFT
 - Victoria Chiesa

If there were questions about which version of Novak Djokovic would show up at Roland-Garros, the world No.1 and defending champion might not have dispelled all of them on Tuesday night on Court Philippe-Chatrier.

But a 6-4, 7-6(3), 6-4 first-round win over French wildcard Pierre-Hugues Herbert nonetheless kept his unbeaten record in the first round of the clay-court Grand Slam tournament intact.

Here’s what we learned (or maybe, what we didn’t) from the defending champion’s return to Paris, which improved him to 20-0 all-time in the first round at the tournament in three tense sets.

A scratchy start

Djokovic’s 2024 results to date have fallen well short of his other-worldly standards. For just the second season since he won his first career ATP singles title in 2006, he arrived at Roland-Garros having not reached a final at any level.

His spring clay-court season, in particular, sounded the alarm further. He reached the semi-finals in Monte Carlo but lost to Casper Ruud there for the first time in six tries. He was later bundled out of the Masters 1000 in Rome, and the ATP 250 in Geneva, by Alejandro Tabilo and Tomas Machac. At the former, he was involved in a scary off-court incident when a water bottle slipped from a fan’s backpack and struck him in the head.

Seeking his record-setting 25th Grand Slam singles title, which would lift him out of a tie with Margaret Court for the most majors won in singles all-time, Djokovic admitted to having “low expectations, but high hopes” for the fortnight – drawing on his long history of playing his best when it mattered the most.

Novak Djokovic, first round, Roland-Garros 2024©Nicolas Gouhier / FFT

“I would say that I know what I'm capable of, and particularly in the Grand Slams I normally play the best tennis, at least I aim always to play the best tennis, and I was most of my career able to do that, so that's the goal,” he said on Sunday. 

His two-hour and 31-minute opening win wasn’t always his brilliant best, but he rose to the occasion when necessary. Herbert, a two-time Roland-Garros doubles champion who was once top 40 in singles, also played a part. Though he doesn’t play as much singles now, the 33-year-old Frenchman, buoyed by his home crowd, stuck with the world No.1 after a speedy first set with big serves, timely volleys, and expert variety.

Mental strength? Never in doubt

A rapid-fire first set went Djokovic’s way in just 39 minutes, and the stats would have certainly made him happy. He hit 11 winners to just two unforced errors, and lost just three points on serve. But sets two and three got more complicated for the top seed, thanks in equal parts to some inspired, bold play from Herbert and his own fluctuating level.

But something that’s rarely in doubt with Djokovic is mental toughness, and he needed every inch of it in a second set that was crucial for the overall tenor of the match. He served to stay in the set twice – and delivered with aplomb to love both times. Five of the first six points of the tie-break went his way, too, and played a big part towards assuaging any of the top seed’s frustrations.

“I think that Pierre served very well, especially in the second set but also in the third set,” Djokovic said in his on-court interview. “I was in a complicated situation because I couldn’t find the right position to return his serves, so it was very important to stay focused. If he had won that second set, then it would’ve been a different match.” 

Djokovic also delivered in the third set when it counted. He turned aside a chance for Herbert to hold for 5-5 before turning a rally on its head in vintage fashion with a backhand pass that set up match point. Herbert double-faulted to end the match. 

Overall, Djokovic only faced one break point, and won 80 per cent of the points in his service games. He hit 29 winners and 18 unforced errors, while Herbert littered the stat sheet with 37 winners and 31 unforced errors. 

No. 1 is still at stake

Djokovic’s status as the game’s No. 1 player (his 10th stint overall) has not been under threat since he wrestled the top ranking back from Carlos Alcaraz after winning the US Open last summer. 

But in Paris, Jannik Sinner has a chance to do just that – and after the Italian’s own first-round win, Djokovic needs to reach at least the final to have a chance of holding on to the top spot.