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By Richard Pagliaro | Monday, May 29, 2023


World No. 3 Novak Djokovic defeated Aleksandar Kovacevic 6-3, 6-2, 7-6(1) raising his Roland Garros first-round record to 19-0.

Photo credit: Clive Mason/Getty

Transforming ball to blur, Novak Djokovic drilled a ballistic forehand to close his Roland Garros return with a rocket shot.

Launching his quest for a men's record 23rd major championship with command with flashy finishes, Djokovic defeated American Aleksandar Kovacevic 6-3, 6-2, 7-6(1) raising his Roland Garros first-round record to a flawless 19-0.

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Competing with the novel No. 3 seed next to his name, Djokovic displayed familiar ferocity and focus. 

The 22-time Grand Slam champion played two commanding sets with his lone stumble coming when he failed to serve out the match at 5-4 in the third committing four unforced errors in his sloppiest game of the match.

Still, Djokovic reset and raced through a ruthless tiebreaker to improve to 21-4 on the season.

"Of course I want to dominate whoever I play against regardless of the circumstances and who is across the net, but, you know, sometimes it works; sometimes it doesn't," Djokovic said. "I think I played really well and held things under control for two-and-a-half sets and then lost my serve and things got a little bit on a wrong side for me.

"But, you know, I managed to hold my nerves and played pretty much a perfect tiebreak."

Though this is only Djokovic's sixth clay-court victory of the season, he should be satisfied with a clean and dynamic dirt performance against a talented 24-year-old opponent, who grew up idolizing him.

Djokovic nearly doubled his winners to errors ratio—41 winners against 22 errors—and asserted his all-court skills winning 19 of 26 trips to net.   

The withdrawal of 14-time Roland Garros champion Rafael Nadal removes Djokovic's rival and potential biggest obstacle on his path to tennis history. 

Taking charge from the outset today, Djokovic set the tone on serve. He served 56 percent with 10 aces against 1 double fault and won 23 of 36 first-serve points.

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The two-time Roland Garros champion advances to a second-round meeting with Marton Fucsovics, who topped French wild card Hugo Grenier 6-3, 5-7, 6-1, 6-3. Djokovic is 4-0 lifetime vs. Fucsovics.

The Djokovic-Kovacevic match was a reunion of sorts.

As a kid Kovacevic, whose family is of Serbian heritage, began playing tennis in New York City's Central Park at the age of 4 and met his tennis hero, a teenage Djokovic, at the US Open when he was about 7.

In his major main-draw debut, Manhattan native Kovacevic showed some shot-making flair and foundational weapons. Kovacevic has a loose, live arm, can generate pace from any place on the court, possesses variety off his one-handed backhand and can hammer the forehand. 

All those assets were put to the stress test by Djokovic, who came out cracking the ball and used superior shot tolerance to drain some errors from the 24-year-old American.

"He played very well, especially in the third set, you know, in the second part of the third set, and made me work for my victory in the third set," Djokovic said. "He's a very nice, very nice guy. We practiced with each other a few times actually during the US Open some years ago. And obviously we speak the same language, he has a Serbian background. We get along really well. I met his family, very nice people.

"He's trying his best, and I think he's got the game. He's got the game, no doubt, to go far. How far, you know, it depends on various things. But, you know, I was pleasantly surprised with his level, considering he hasn't played maybe that much on clay."

Both men came out cranking deep drives with Kovacevic staying in step for four games. Twenty-five minutes into the match, Djokovic made his move.

Dancing around his backhand, Djokovic slashed a diagonal forehand winner scoring the first break with a heavy strike for 4-2.

The two-time champion crushed a crosscourt forehand confirming the break with a love hold for 5-2.

Serving for a one-set lead, Djokovic slid a second-serve ace, carved a slick backhand volley winner and drew an error to cap a 25-shot rally wrapping up a strong opening set. Djokovic served 70 percent, smacked 5 aces and won 20 of 23 points played on his serve in an assertive opening set.

Playing off his front foot, Djokovic spread the court beautifully moving the Manhattan native around the court at times like a harried commuter trying to catch the train at rush hour. Djokovic forced a forehand error breaking to start the second set.

Credit Kovacevic for continuing to scrap away. Kovacevic cracked consecutive aces to cap a love hold for 2-5.

The third-seeded Serbian slammed shut the second set then hit crisp combinations breaking to start the third set.

At that point, Djokovic was in complete command, but Kovacevic churned out a triple-break point chance in the second game. Djokovic erased all three break points then showed rare frustration on the day when his apparent ace down the T was over-ruled by the electronic system.

Venting briefly at the chair umpire, Djokovic took out his frustrations on the ball belting some ferocious forehands and bellowing "come on!"  after game point. Djokovic soothed stress holding to consolidate for a 2-0 third-set lead.

Still, Kovacevic continued to drive the ball with vigor. As Djokovic, who wasn't wearing a baseball cap, struggled to pick up his toss staring into the afternoon soon, Kovacevic jumped on his opportunity. When the Serbian sailed a forehand, Kovacevic broke for the first time forging a 3-3 third-set deadlock.

Shrugging that mis-step off, Djokovic detonated a heavy forehand strike into the corner to send the American in chase pursuit then blistered a backhand winner into the opposite corner breaking back for 4-3 and cupping a hand to his ear exhorting French fans to make more noise.

Djokovic pumped his eighth ace out wide extending to 5-3.

Serving for the match, the Wimbledon winner played one of his sloppiest service games. Pausing between points to press a towel to his eyes as if trying to clear dust away, Djokovic spit up four errors, including flattening a forehand into net to gift the break back in the 10th game.

In the tiebreaker, Kovacevic launched a bold backhand winner down the line only to see Djokovic fire a forehand winner down the line for the double mini break and a 4-1 lead.  Djokovic drove a dagger forehand return down the line to close a two hour, 26-minute victory with a superb strike. 


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