Novak's French renaissance gathers pace

 - Alex Sharp

Flashes of Djokovic's unbeatable form of old are starting to break through at Roland-Garros.

“Of course I don't want to play four, five hours every match, but I think it was a great test. I had to earn my victory. The last set was actually the best set that I have played so far in the tournament.”

A rejuvenated Novak Djokovic is incrementally finding his finest form, proving he is up to the task at Roland-Garros with a dogged 6-4 6-7(6) 7-6(4) 6-2 third-round win over world No.13 Roberto Bautista Agut.

There were roars amid the flashes of brilliance – in among his 51 winners, he decimated a racket on the red dirt, and demanded the crowd became embroiled in the battle.

This is the deeply-determined Djokovic who swept to 12 majors and clinched a career Grand Slam in Paris just two years ago. Ever since, however, it has been a well-documented decline attributed to motivation, a troublesome elbow and faltering form.

The route back has been hard. The 31-year-old returned from elbow surgery in March, only to suffer opening-match defeats at Indian Wells, to Taro Daniel, and in Miami, where he was beaten by Benoit Paire. And it was the the manner of the defeats – the lacklustre performances and dejected expressions – that drew concern from his legion of fans.

A reunion with former coach Marian Vajda for the clay season coincided with these green shoots of recovery, culminating in a semi-final run in Rome. It may be the first time since 2006 that Djokovic failed to win a title prior to Roland-Garros, but the former champion remains optimistic.

Roland-Garros 2018, Novak Djokovic, entraînement, practice© Cedric Lecocq / FFT

“You always learn more from losses than from wins – always,” Djokovic insists. “Because when you lose a match, it puts you in a position, in a state of mind where you're just questioning, doubting. Everything that is maybe suppressed or has been not addressed at the time is surfacing when you lose a big match.

“That's when you have to deal with this kind of emotions and understand how you can get better, how you can balance everything that is happening inside, so you can come out the next challenge and learn from it and be better, and strive to never really give up.”

Considered an outsider for the title while ranked at his lowest since October 2006, Djokovic breezed past Rogerio Dutra Silva and Jaume Munar in straight sets without making waves. But the world No.22 certainly turned heads on Court Suzanne-Lenglen Friday, battling back from two sets to one down against Bautista Agut to punch his fourth-round ticket.

“To play that way and finish the match in tough conditions against a player who doesn't miss a lot and puts a lot of balls back, that's something that gives me great deal of confidence,” declared Djokovic whose seven victories in Rome and Paris are more than he managed in his first six tournaments of 2018.

“He's not going to hand you the win, you have to deserve it. For me, not having so many matches in the last period, this is great. I don't feel too exhausted. That's good news as well.”

A third successive Spaniard awaits in the fourth round: Fernando Verdasco. The world No.35 dismantled Grigor Dimitrov on Court 1 in straight sets to book a 15th meeting with Djokovic. The former world No.1 boasts a 10-4 lead in their head-to-head rivalry, but Verdasco triumphed in their last two clashes on clay back in 2010.

The Spaniard is an attacker by nature, and hinted the Serbian’s 2016 aura has vanished: “Djokovic is not exactly at the level he was a couple of years ago, but in Rome and in other matches he started playing a bit better,” he said.

Verdasco may sense his chance to reach a maiden Roland Garros quarter-final, but the Djokovic renaissance has been building momentum. Is Novak back? We’ll soon find out.