If spending time on court was Novak Djokovic’s primary aim at the Serbia Open then the tournament could not have gone much better.
Djokovic was pushed to three sets in all four of his matches in Belgrade and had over 10 hours of competitive action to hone his game and improve his fitness. He didn’t finish up with silverware after losing to second seed Andrey Rublev in the final, but spoke afterwards about “looking at the positives”.
The overriding positive is that he played as many matches in a week as he had done in the previous four months of the season due to restrictions over where he could travel while unvaccinated. When he returned to action in Monte Carlo earlier this month after seven weeks away he looked rusty and severely undercooked as he was beaten in his opening match by Alejandro Davidovich Fokina. It was plain to see as the match slipped away in a one-sided third set that this clay season is going to be about progression for Djokovic.
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The rust was still there in Serbia, but there was progress.
For starters, Djokovic won a match, surviving a very tricky opener against Laslo Djere that he probably should have lost. Djere, who reached the semi-finals of the Grand Prix Hassan II in Casablanca earlier this month and made the last 16 in Monte Carlo, looked far sharper in the first set and seemed to be heading for victory after breaking to lead 4-3 in the second set.
But a shocking missed forehand into the net allowed Djokovic the chance to break back from 40-15 down, and another awful forehand error at 4-3 up in the final-set tiebreak again proved costly. It was a match Djokovic said he probably didn’t deserve to win – “I think Djere, for most of the match, was the better player” – and there was little celebration at its conclusion.
But if Djokovic does go on to defend his title at the French Open he may look back at those glaring misses from Djere as key moments in his preparation. Had Djere converted his chances it would have been another one-and-done for Djokovic. Instead, he progressed and came through two more three-set battles with Miomir Kecmanovic and Karen Khachanov.
Against Kecmanovic the two scintillating backhand winners to close out were vintage Djokovic, as was the roaring celebration that greeted the win. After beating Khachanov in his next match Djokovic said he was feeling “closer and closer” to his top level and didn’t think “the lack of matches plays a role” any more in his performances. But that did not appear true in the final.
The match against Rublev looked up for grabs after Djokovic battled to win the second set, but just as he did against Davidovich Fokina in Monte Carlo, the world No. 1 faded drastically. His tiredness was obvious after long rallies and at the end of the 6-0 third set – just the 13th time he has been bagelled in his career – Djokovic looked completely drained.
“When something fails, the engine can’t work,” Djokovic said afterwards. “It’s a bit worrisome, I can only assume it’s because of the illness that hit me a few weeks ago.”
Djokovic’s coach Goran Ivanisevic had revealed in Monte Carlo that the Serbian was “sick” ahead of the tournament. Yet in some ways this drop off is not entirely new.

Highlights: Djokovic closes in on third Serbia Open title after win over Khachanov

For the first half of 2021, Djokovic was magnificent, sweeping all aside to win the Australian Open, French Open and Wimbledon. Even his decision to play at the Tokyo 2020 Olympics looked justified as he won his first four matches without dropping a set. But things seem to have pivoted slightly around the crushing defeat to Alexander Zverev in the semi-finals. Djokovic was clearly devastated by the result and left Tokyo without a medal, having lost the bronze medal match and pulled out of the mixed doubles, and also with a shoulder injury.
At the US Open he then dropped the opening set in five consecutive matches, four of which he won before being dominated by Daniil Medvedev in the final. After a lengthy break he won on his return in Paris, winning only one match in straight sets, and at the ATP Finals he was outplayed by Alexander Zverev in the semi-finals. Even before the controversy surrounding the Australian Open earlier this season it seemed like Djokovic was more beatable than before.
But how much should be read into the events of the last few weeks and the leggy final sets? For Djokovic now the clay season seems like a process to get in the best possible shape for Roland Garros and Wimbledon. He has spoken again about “peaking” in time for Paris, which he did to perfection last year, and Madrid and Rome are building blocks for Djokovic rather than tournaments he is desperate to win. He will not care a jot if the only clay title he wins this season is the biggest of the lot.
Despite the potential concerns over his fitness, former world No. 1 Andy Roddick said the Serbia Open was “just the kind of week Novak needed” in preparation for the French Open.
“Had some seriously physical matches and had the reps for the mental stress points,” wrote Roddick on Twitter. “He has some time to recover/practice before Rome. Obviously we all want to win all the time, but I think he got everything he wanted/needed out of the week.”
The next two months will be an intriguing time to follow Djokovic. He is set to play at least two more clay events in the lead-up to the French Open and will certainly run into tougher fields than he faced in Belgrade. How quickly he can rediscover his peak form and fitness will be key to his chances in Paris.
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