Novak Djokovic’s preparations for the defence of his French Open title suffered a shock blow as his long-awaited return to competitive action ended in a second-round defeat to world No. 46 Alejandro Davidovich Fokina in Monte Carlo.
The world No. 1 looked rusty and was far from his best as he succumbed to a 3-6 7-6 (5) 1-6 loss in only his fourth match of 2022 and his first since February 24.
Djokovic’s lack of tennis due to his vaccination status, and the Covid-19 regulations that saw him miss the Australian Open, Indian Wells and Miami, were clear for all to see as he struggled to find rhythm and consistency throughout an unpredictable encounter that was hindered by windy conditions.
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It was ultimately a day to forget for the 20-time Grand Slam champion but credit must go to Davidovich Fokina, who claimed the biggest scalp of his career to-date with his previous best being at this event last year over the then world No. 10 Matteo Berrettini.
Speaking on court following his shock victory, Davidovich Fokina said: "This win is so special for me because I grew up watching Nole. I’m a big fan of his. I look up to him at every tournament and in every match he plays, so I need to enjoy every moment of the win against him as the No. 1 in Monte Carlo and in front of these people. I’m so happy.
"I started very well and I knew Nole didn’t have the confidence because he hasn’t played a lot. I had to focus on every point. It was tough to take mentally when he won the second set. I was working so hard to be more focused.
It didn’t matter that I lost the second set. I had to be prepared for the war."
Davidovich Fokina has produced some of his finest results on clay having reached the quarter-finals in Monte Carlo and the French Open last year, and he looked much sharper than his illustrious opponent as he rampaged into a 4-1 lead courtesy of a double break.
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Djokovic was leaking errors off both wings and his drop shots lacked feel and seemed ill-conceived, with some barely reaching the net. The Serb did manage to snatch one break back but was broken for a third time as he coughed up 16 unforced errors in what he will regard as a wretched 44-minute opening set.
In contrast, Davidovich Fokina had offered up just seven and he maintained his momentum when he survived five break points and a 15-minute service game to claim a 3-0 lead in the second set.
The scoreline was looking bleak for the record 37-time Masters 1000 champion but he found some belated resolve to battle back against an opponent sitting at number 46 in the world and who he had comfortably beaten in their previous two meetings last year.
A run of three straight breaks were followed by a love hold that saw Djokovic level at 4-4 as his opponent required treatment for some nasty grazes following an avoidable dive chasing down a shot. Indeed, the tumble seemed to completely unsettle the young Spaniard who then threw in three straight double faults to cough up a break that allowed Djokovic to serve for the set.
However, this was not vintage Djokovic and a series of unforced errors helped the 22-year-old underdog to earn a reprieve and keep his hopes of a famous win alive by pushing to a tie break.
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The Spaniard had his chances at 4-2 and 5-4 in the breaker but could not convert and Djokovic leaned upon all of his experience to reel off three points in a row and force a decider with a sizzling winner on the stretch.
The script appeared to favour a comeback win for the world number one but the plot thickened early in the third set when a double fault gifted Davidovich Fokina the early break.
Both players had opportunities to keep the crowd inside Court Rainier III guessing as to who would prevail but it was the Spaniard who claimed the significant blow when he forced another tired error from the top seed to break again for a 4-1 lead.
There would be no fight back this time with Djokovic clocking up 51 unforced errors as he was broken for a ninth time to lose a two hour and 54 minute battle.
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