Djokovic digs deep to survive in five

Defending champion empties the tank to beat Musetti in decider at gone 3am

 Novak Djokovic, troisième tour, Roland-Garros 2024©Cédric Lecocq / FFT
 - Victoria Chiesa

In a historic effort, world No.1 and defending champion Novak Djokovic kept his Roland-Garros campaign alive on Court Philippe-Chatrier on Saturday - which became Sunday - in a five-set triumph over Italy’s Lorenzo Musetti 7-5, 6-7(6), 2-6, 6-3, 6-0.

The match, which began before 11pm on Saturday and ended at 3.07am on Sunday in Paris for the latest finish in Roland-Garros history, will find itself in tennis’ record books for many reasons.

Chief of which? Djokovic’s titanic triumph was his 369th all-time at a Grand Slam tournament, which ties him with Roger Federer for the most major match wins in history. The Serb will take sole possession of first place if he beats No.23 seed Francisco Cerundolo in the fourth round on Monday.

But it almost didn’t happen. From a set and a break ahead, Djokovic found himself trailing by two-sets-to-one against No.30 seed Musetti, who was bidding to make the fourth round at Roland Garros for the third time, and eventually needed to earn his 10th all-time five-set win at Roland-Garros in a staggering four hours and 29 minutes.

Story of the match

Djokovic looked on course for a fairly uncomplicated third-round victory, his fourth against Musetti in five tries, as he built a 7-5, 4-1 lead. But the Italian, who famously led Djokovic by two-sets-to-love in the fourth round as a teenager in 2021 in his Roland-Garros debut, started to find some of the flashy shot-making that’s established the 22-year-old as one of the game’s most exciting young talents, particularly on clay courts.

Having not broken Djokovic’s serve nor earned a break point since 1-1 in the opening set, Musetti broke back in the seventh game of the third set, and twice responded to the challenge of serving to stay in it. The youngster rose even further to the occasion in the ensuing tiebreak, where he saved a set point after seeing a 3-0 lead disappear, and knotted the score at one set all after two hours on court. 

His momentum continued in a dominant set three as Djokovic lost a bit of edge: He saved a break point at 1-1, and broke Djokovic to love in the fourth game in a set in which he never again trailed. In the frame, Musetti hit 10 winners to Djokovic’s three.

Set four began with four holds, and Musetti had two points for a fifth straight - and a 3-2 lead, which would’ve put him, perhaps, on the precipice of the second week. But the world No.1 wasn’t quite ready to leave Paris, nor surrender his perch to Jannik Sinner - who will overtake the top spot should Djokovic lose before the final. A backhand winner, two missed Musetti forehands, and a double fault gave Djokovic his first break of serve since the start of the second set, and a second life.

With the comeback firmly in his sights at that point, Djokovic won 11 of the last 12 games, including seven in a row. He lost just nine points in the final set, three of which came on his serve at 4-0, where Musetti forced deuce.

Novak Djokovic, third round, Roland-Garros 2024©Cedric Lecocq / FFT

For the record books

Djokovic and Musetti blew past the previous latest finish at Roland-Garros by more than 90 minutes. The previous record at the tournament was 1.26am, recorded when Rafael Nadal beat Jannik Sinner in the quarterfinals four years ago. It was also the second-longest match of this year’s Roland-Garros, behind Daniel Altmaier’s defeat of Laslo Djere in the first round which lasted more than five hours.

The record-setting performance allowed Djokovic to avoid a first-week loss at a Grand Slam for just the fifth time since winning his first major title in Australia in 2008, and a first since the 2017 fortnight in Melbourne. He last lost before the fourth round at Roland-Garros 15 years ago in 2009, and hadn’t played a five-set match this early in the tournament since beating Diego Schwartzman in the third round in 2017.

Conversely, Musetti lost from two-sets-to-one up for the third straight Grand Slam event. At the Australian Open, he lost to French teenager Luca van Assche, and to another Frenchman, Titouan Droguet, at last summer’s US Open.

Key stats

Despite hitting more winners than Djokovic (53 to 44), Musetti couldn’t sustain the level of tennis he showed over the first three sets to finish off the upset. While he actually hit fewer unforced errors than Djokovic in the match overall (42 to 34), the Serb forced him into more than double that total of forced errors (72) as Musetti started to fade in the last set and a half.