Novak Djokovic's return in Monte Carlo: Carlos Alcaraz quarter-final, Dan Evans rematch, world No.1 battle
Novak Djokovic makes his return in Monte Carlo and could face a quarter-final against Carlos Alcaraz as he builds up to the defence of his French Open title in May. World No.1 Djokovic will be playing just his second tournament of the season and will be hoping to get back into form ahead of Paris, where he will be looking to equal Rafael Nadal on 21 Grand Slam titles.
'I'll use these challenging few months as a fuel' - Djokovic on his return to tennis
Novak Djokovic will play only his second tournament of the season this week at the Monte Carlo Masters as he looks to belatedly build up match practice in 2022.
The world No.1 was unable to play the Australian Open, Indian Wells or Miami Open as he is unvaccinated. However, with Covid-19 regulations loosening around Europe, Djokovic will be hoping that Monte Carlo is the first of several clay events he can play in preparation for the defence of his French Open title on May 22.
But it could be a difficult return for Djokovic with a testing draw and a change in his coaching team...
‘There’s no place like home’ has not exactly rung true for Djokovic over the last few years in Monte Carlo, where he has resided for much of his career.
Djokovic has not made it past the quarter-finals of the tournament since 2015 and last year produced one of his “worst matches” in recent memory as he hit 45 unforced errors in defeat to Dan Evans. “I felt awful on the court overall, nothing worked,” lamented Djokovic afterwards.
Djokovic’s draw this time around is far from straightforward. In the third round he could face a rematch with Evans, then Carlos Alcaraz could be lying in wait in the quarter-finals.
Alcaraz has been the standout player from the first quarter of the ATP season along with Rafael Nadal, compiling an 18-2 record and winning his first Masters title in Miami. All the popcorn emojis would be out for a first career meeting between Alcaraz and Djokovic, especially with the 18-year-old coming into the match in such impressive form.
Forget Paris 2024, Djokovic is on the road to Paris 2022.
Everything that he does over the next six weeks should be geared up to getting himself in the best possible position to challenge for a record-equalling 21st Grand Slam title at Roland Garros.
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Would some titles along the way be nice? Of course. But what Djokovic is seeking more than anything right now is match practice and to “really get in the groove” after so long away from the tour. He’s acknowledged it might take time - “I understand that I probably won't be at my best, particularly at the beginning” – but in the clay swing there is time.
Depending on Covid-19 regulations, Djokovic may play three or four more events before the French Open, giving him ample opportunity to catch up to the competition.
Even if he doesn’t go deep at any tournaments that isn’t necessarily a prerequisite for winning in Paris. Djokovic showed last year that it is all about the process, with his surprising decision to fine-tune his game at a tournament in Belgrade the week before the French Open paying off with another Grand Slam victory.
The pair have worked together for almost the entirety of Djokovic’s professional career and Vajda has been a part of all 20 Grand Slam victories. However, it was reported that they agreed to split after the 2021 ATP Finals, and Vajda was not present at the Australian Open or in Dubai.
Djokovic has not hired a replacement for Vajda and will instead move forward with Goran Ivanisevic, who has been part of the coaching team since 2019.
Novak Djokovic & Marian Vajda
Image credit: Getty Images
"The last four, five months have been really challenging for me mentally and emotionally,” said Djokovic ahead of Monte Carlo.
“But here I am and I try to leave all that behind and move on.”
How Vajda’s absence impacts Djokovic remains to be seen. It was in Monte Carlo in 2017 that Djokovic split with Vajda for the first time, citing a need to find a “winning spark” on court again. The move did not pay off and it was only after reuniting with Vajda a year later in Monte Carlo that Djokovic returned to his best level.
A strong run in Monte Carlo would be a good start as next month he has points to defend in Madrid and Rome, before he looks to defend his French Open title and the 2,000 ranking points that come with it.
“Being world No.1 is the highest achievement that you can have in our sport, so I'll try to maintain that position as much as possible,” said Djokovic.
Medvedev has few points to defend on clay so will not fall away much despite his absence from the tour, but Alexander Zverev could be Djokovic’s biggest challenger if he can rediscover his best form.
The world No.3 won in Madrid last year, but lost early in Monte Carlo and only made the quarter-finals in Rome, so could have an opportunity to close on Djokovic with a strong clay swing.
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