Djokovic advances after entertaining clash

 - Ian Chadband

Novak Djokovic was made to work hard before overcoming Brazilian Rogerio Dutra Silva on Philippe-Chatrier.

It was all hugely entertaining, dotted with a series of compelling rallies and ooo-aah retrieving, but ultimately Novak Djokovic’s opening win in his quest to regain his Roland-Garros title saw him giving another impression of a man scrabbling around deep in his memory bank to discover the great champion he once was.

The 2016 victor eventually prevailed 6-3 6-4 6-4 after a wholly enjoyable first-round clash on Monday with sprightly Brazilian qualifier Rogerio Dutra Silva on Court Philippe-Chatrier.

Yet though he eventually got the job done in five minutes over two hours, and sounded satisfied at the manner in which he had subdued the world No.134, who had appeared to be playing far above himself for much of the contest, the nagging thought was that Djokovic still looked to have some distance to go to recover that untouchable form of two years ago.

Of course, nobody knows this better than Nole himself. As he reflected on the traumatic year he’s had since being hammered here in the 2017 quarter-final by Dominic Thiem, he shrugged after his opening win: “It’s been difficult to face the most challenging major (elbow) injury that I have ever had.

“It's been a long 12 months behind me, but I feel like I'm starting to play better in the past couple of weeks. I think I had some really good moments in the match and some not that great. But I played Dutra Silva, a specialist in clay, who plays with a lot of energy. He's a big fighter. So it wasn't easy.

“I didn't feel that great. But, yeah, I played enough to win, so it's good.”

There were some delicious moments, particularly some magnificent movement in defence, when Djokovic really did look like his old elastic man self but you could also see why he has just dropped out of the world's top 20 for the first time in a dozen years as the 34-year-old Dutra Silva was still wriggling on the hook deep into the third set.

This version of Djokovic, with his remodelled serve and following surgery to cure that chronic elbow injury, is not dismantling lesser players as he once could. Bigger fish may well still get away from the world No.22.

Still, it is a fascinating watching him try to inch back, trying to build on his more encouraging performances of this clay-court campaign, like his most recent examination of Rafael Nadal in Rome.

And Djokovic reckoned he was taking inspiration from other players who have been through the same, or even worse, ordeals.

“I had to dig deep,” he explained, “especially when I came back to the tennis court after four-and-a-half months after not playing tennis at the end of last year, and then the pain recurred, and I didn't know in which direction that was going to take me.

“It's a challenge but I'm not the first player in the history of this game to face these kind of circumstances with big injuries. (Juan-Martin) Del Potro comes to mind. He's someone that has faced even worse challenging circumstances with two, three years of couple surgeries, coming back, playing, not playing really well, and then having to retire so many times.

“And now he’s back to top 10, top five of the world. That's impressive. Those kind of stories inspire you - and hopefully I can do the same.”