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By Richard Pagliaro | @TennisNow | Monday, June 3, 2024


In a wildly-entertaining thriller, Novak Djokovic fought off Francisco Cerundolo in four hours, 39 minutes to set a pair of major milestones at Roland Garros.

Photo credit: Ian MacNicol/Getty

Blood blotched Novak Djokovic’s knee, sweat streaked his face and a swath of salmon-colored clay stained his shirt.

The world No. 1 looked like a man who spent four hours slam-dancing with a rugby squad in a mud mosh pit.

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In the end, supreme fighter Djokovic climbed off the red clay and battled through a brilliant comeback.

Fighting back from a two-sets to one deficit, Djokovic played audacious all-court tennis edging Francisco Cerundolo 6-1, 5-7, 3-6, 7-5, 6-3 in a four hour, 39-minute fight to reach his 18th Roland Garros quarterfinal in 20 career appearances.

On the largest clay-court stage in the sport, Djokovic went full warrior mode rising up to earn two massive major milestones.

The Grand Slam king reached his record 59th career Grand Slam quarterfinal and broke the Grand Slam record he shared with Roger Federer capturing his record 370th major match win.

Afterward, Djokovic said he wasn't quite sure he could continue playing due to that right knee issue that he said he's been coping with for a couple of weeks.

"At one point I didn't know, to be honest, whether I should continue or not with what's happening," Djokovic told the media in Paris. "I got the medications, and then after the third set was done, I asked for more medications, and I got them.

"That was the maximum dose that kicked in, as I heard now from doctor after 30 to 45 minutes, which was just about the time kind of end of the fourth when things started to really improve for me. I started to feel less limitations in my movement.

"Basically the whole fifth set was almost without any pain, which is great, you know. But then the effect of the medications will not last for too long, so I'll see."

Credit Cerundolo, who was so tight at the start he basically gave the first set away, for finding his form and very nearly dethroning the defending champion.

It sure wasn’t easy, but it will go down as one of the most wildly entertaining matches we’ve seen during this French Open.

Reigning champion Djokovic continues his quest for a record-extending 25th Grand Slam crown, facing a couple of questions: How will his right knee hold up after he took treatment today and how will his battered body respond after he's prevailed in a pair of punishing four-hour, five-set victories?

We'll find out soon. Djokovic will face either two-time finalist Casper Ruud, in a rematch of the 2023 final, or American No. 1 Taylor Fritz for a spot in the final four.

Solidifying his status as tennis’ top marathon man, Djokovic now owns an Open Era best 40-11 record in five-setters, including an 11-3 mark in French Open five-setters.

Consider the massive challenges Djokovic stared down in this match and you can really appreciate the depth of his determination today.

Thirty-seven hours after Djokovic fought off talented Italian Lorenzo Musetti in a four hour, 29-minute five-setter that ended at 3:07 a.m. Paris time, the 37-year-old Serbian superstar looked banged up from an apparent right knee injury, took a couple of hard tumbles to the terre battue, argued with the tournament referee over court conditions and was facing an opponent 12 years his junior blasting forehands all over the court.

Ratcheting up tension even more, Djokovic was down two sets to one knowing if he lost this match he would lose his world No. 1 ranking to world No. 2 Jannik Sinner.

None of that deterred a defiant Djokovic, who won this match on grit, guts, willpower and some crazy, timely winners.

If you want to know why Djokovic is GOAT, you don't need to regurgitate records.

Take a moment and review the fifth set of this match where the top seed went airborne for an outrageous sliding drop volley or the forehand strike he plastered off the baseline down the stretch, watch his defiance at work and you can appreciate Djokovic's greatness.

It’s one thing knowing you must lift your level near the finish, it's another story seeing how high Djokovic would fly more than four hours into this fight.

Spinning his wheels in the worst possible start, Cerundolo flicked a dropper that Djokovic reached easily and shoveled an angled winning reply for his second straight break and a 5-1 lead.

Serving for the set, Djokovic saved two break points. On his fourth set point, Djokovic pulled off the surprise-serve-and-volley lifting a soft half-volley winner that would have surely made his tennis hero, Pete Sampras, smile in admiration. That slick stick work sealed a one-set lead after 39 minutes.

"First set I was just figuring out how to win a point, how to play against him, because I was so uncomfortable on court. After that I think I started playing better," Cerundolo told the media in Paris. "Yeah, it was a great battle. He always finds a way to come back and play his best tennis at the toughest moments and at the end of every match.

"So yeah, it is what it is. I did my best. I was so close, but I couldn't win it. He show again why he's the best."

The Grand Slam king seemed to strain his knee early in the second set.

About 50 minutes into the match, Djokovic clutched at his right knee after changing direction during one point. When Cerundolo stamped a love hold for 2-1, Djokovic limped a little bit walking to his seat then sat down and immediately inspected his right knee before calling for a medical timeout.

When play resumed, Djokovic dug in denying two break points to level for 2-all.

Facing another break point in the sixth game, Djokovic aced it away.

Grinding through a 10-minute hold, Djokovic denied four more break points, including dodging one when Cerundolo had a good look at a short forehand and shoveled it wide.

The reigning Roland Garros champion had repelled all 10 break points he faced leveling at 3-all.

During the changeover, Djokovic urged tournament referee Wayne McKewen to get the grounds crew to sweep the court every second changeover, claiming unruly clay contributed to his knee issue.

“Why is it such a big issue to sweep the court?” Djokovic asked McKewen. “Explain it to me. I screwed up my knee because I made a quick move. I’m sliding and slipping. The only thing I’m asking is every second changeover you can sweep the court. That’s all. What’s the problem with the grounds crew to do [it] every second changeover…

“You are the supervisor. You are representing us players. I’m telling you as a player it’s not safe and you’re going by the grounds crew, people who don’t play tennis? So they know better than me?”

“I’m not saying that,” McKewen replied.

“You are saying that,” Djokovic shot back.

Afterward, Djokovic said while he regards Roland Garros as the best clay courts in the world, he believes days of rain, combined with the constant play, have created uneven conditions. Djokovic suggested his knee issue could have "possibly" been prevented if the court had been swept every second changeover.

"We cannot treat these conditions as common conditions. They are not common," Djokovic said. "You know, we had rain. We had really bad weather for days, even a week. So that has affected the court itself.

"So I'm sure that the grounds people have their hands full. I know they're working very hard. I'm not saying they are doing it the wrong way. Absolutely not. They are doing their best.

"I'm just trying to understand, if a player is feeling a certain way and then, you know, what else do we need to wait for for that to happen? I mean, today I injured myself. Yes, I survived. I won the match. Great. But will I be able to play next one? I don't know. I don't know the severity of the injury. But could have this injury be prevented? Possibly, if, you know, if there was just a little bit more of a frequent care of the court during the set."

Still, Djokovic hung tough until the 12th game. Sailing a forehand well long, Djokovic faced double-set point.

The top seed serve-and-volleyed successfully saving the first set point.

On his 12th break point and second set point, Cerundolo finally broke through when Djokovic missed a forehand wide to take the second set.

Reading the Serbian’s serve better and driving his returns deeper, Cerundolo smacked a short-angled, inside-out forehand breaking for a 2-0 third-set lead.

Holding a 4-1 lead, Cerundolo launched a rocket running forehand down the line clocked at 101 mph that drew applause from the defending champion.

While Djokovic was trying to shorten points and protect that cranky right knee, Cerundolo was continuing his transformation.

The Argentinean who was sleep-walking through the opening set was surging in the third firing a forehand down the line and scalding his first ace for a 5-2 lead.

Serving for the set at 30-all, Cerundolo nearly double-faulted, but caught a break as a reeling Djokovic missed two returns in a row.

Raising his racquet to his box, Cerundolo snatched a two-sets to one lead.

In his effort to shorten points, Djokovic over-played the drop shot at times. Cerundolo ran down a dropper and angled a clean pass for a break point in the fifth game. When Djokovic sailed his two-hander Cerundolo snatched the key break for a 3-2 fourth-set lead.

Showing no jitters, Cerundolo held at 15 stretching his lead to 4-2 after three hours, 15 minutes of play.

Though the Argentinean was two holds from a maiden major quarterfinal. Djokovic wasn’t done yet.

The champion broke back in the eighth game, furiously pumping his fists and exhorting Paris fans to make noise, then held for 5-4.

Staring down a break point in the 11th game, Djokovic moved in behind a forehand drive volley then survived the point at net as Cerundolo netted a backhand pass attempt down the line.

Cerundolo staved off two set points, making a fantastic dig and driving a diagonal forehand to save the second set point.

On his fourth set point, Djokovic hit a backhand behind his opponent, eliciting a netted forehand to break and force a final set with a clenched fist after three hours, 48 minutes.

Amping up the pace of his forehand, Djokovic immediately posed pressure at the start of the final set.

Though the 25-year-old Argentinean is 12 years younger than Djokovic, Cerundolo has just one career give-set win, while Djokovic was 39-11 lifetime in five-setters. Experience was evident as Djokovic jerked Cerundolo around breaking for 2-0.

Four hours, six minutes into the match, Cerundolo rolled a backhand down the line breaking back.

Djokovic took a hard tumble chasing a ball behind the baseline and arose with some blood on his knee and a swath of dirt streaking the back of his cranberry-colored shirt.

In the seventh game, Djokovic soared to an insanely-enjoyable level.

First, Cerundolo cracked a dipping forehand topspin pass that seemed certain to elude the top seed. Sliding into a full split, Djokovic somehow flicked a diving Boris Becker-style volley winner then celebrated waving his arms while lying on the dirt like a man surfing his way through stress.

That phenomenal shot drew applause from Cerundolo and sparked Djokovic to slam successive forehand winners for 4-3.

Crackling rallies were drawing gasps from fans at times throughout the decisive set.

Then Djokovic dropped a bolt of brilliance lasering a forehand down the line that pierce the baseline. That searing strike gave the champion the break and a 5-3 lead.

On match point, Djokovic’s eyes got him through. He correctly stopped play and pointed to a mark where Cerundolo’s backhand landed wide. Chair umpire Aurelie Tourte checked the mark and confirmed it was wide.

Game, set, match Djokovic in a wildly entertaining epic that spanned four hours, 39 minutes.


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