Djokovic begins French Open title defence with victory over Herbert | French Open 2024

Novak Djokovic arrived in Paris for his French Open title defence with ample reasons to doubt himself. He is struggling badly for form, there has been a significant upheaval in his support team, and the 98‑time ATP title ­winner still has not even reached a single final this season.

He is still Novak Djokovic, though, and still the best player in the world over the past 52 weeks, meaning his ­presence alone marks him as one of the tour­nament favourites and a true force. On Tuesday night, he began his title defence in the French capital with a hard‑fought 6-4, 7-6 (3), 6-4 ­victory against Pierre-Hugues ­Herbert, a French wildcard, to reach the ­second round as he continued his search for form.

It was not always easy. In front of a packed, partisan crowd ­furiously cheering on their own player, ­Djokovic struggled to summon his best tennis in Herbert’s service games as the Frenchman kept Djokovic at bay with his wicked kick serve and forays into the net.

“Monte Carlo, Rome, and Geneva tournaments started really well for me,” Djokovic said.

“First matches I played were great. Then second matches, third matches was quite different. So I don’t want to get too excited.

“I thought it was a good performance for me, solid. Of course I could have done better, I think, on return games, but also credit to him for ­serving very well, for changing things up, for seeing every time I would step back for second serve, you know, give him a little bit ­different look, he would see that, he would come in.”

While Djokovic was still far from his best, with too many unforced errors off both groundstrokes ­during the second set, he was sharper in the decisive moments. From 5-6 in the second set, Djokovic won nine of the next 10 points, establishing a 5-1 lead in the tiebreak before easily seeing out the set. After struggling to break Herbert down on his serve ­throughout the final set, he sealed the match as the Frenchman’s ­resistance finally fell and he served a double-fault on match point.

Novak Djokovic and Pierre-Hugues Herbert embrace after the match. Photograph: Tim Goode/Getty Images

This event marks Djokovic’s first grand slam tournament since splitting with his longtime coach Goran Ivanisevic, and after travelling on the ATP tour with the former ­doubles No 1 Nenad Zimonjic he is joined in Paris by Boris Bosnjakovic, who previously worked as head coach in Djokovic’s tennis centre in Belgrade.

Djokovic’s attempts to gain matchplay and rhythm in Geneva last week only added further question marks to his current level of play as he fell in the semi-finals against Tomas Machac. Before the tournament, Djokovic had described his approach to the tournament as having “low expectations and high hopes” but he also noted he came here to win.

“I almost feel a bit embarrassed to say what my expectations are. Anything but a title for me is not ­satisfactory,” he said. “So it always has been like that. I know, it might sound arrogant to a lot of people, but I think I have the career that backs it up.”

Now he is in the game, the goal, as usual, will be to build his form and work his way into the tournament in time to face tougher opponents in the rounds ahead. Djokovic will next face Roberto Carballés Baena of Spain, a natural clay-courter who will attempt to test Djokovic’s patience in long, grinding rallies.

After numerous questions of his motivation and energy in some of his matches this year, Djokovic said he was particularly pleased with how he conducted himself throughout the victory, as his mind shifts towards round two: “Again, this is only one match here,” he said.

“So we have to see, see how I progress in the tournament, how the feeling evolves, but it was good. You know, I was fist‑pumping, I was focused, I was there, I was present. So I’m pleased with the way at least I behaved or had a mindset on the court. That was something that I was looking for. And where are you going to feel that way if not in grand slam?

“So it’s something that I have been saying from the beginning of the year and from the last whatever years that grand slams are the ones that are basically getting me up from the bed every day and knowing that I have to hit the practice courts.”

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