June 24, 2024

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Djokovic out of Roland Garros with medial meniscus tear

(This piece has been updated with the news of Novak Djokovic’s withdrawal from Roland Garros).

ROLAND GARROS – It won’t make Novak Djokovic feel one iota better that the trolls who questioned whether he was “truly” injured Monday night were, as they usually are, wrong.

Because the 37-year-old defending champion is out of Roland Garros a little less than 24 hours after his five-set win over Francisco Cerundolo in the fourth round.

After an MRI revealed a tear in the medial meniscus of his right knee, the quest for Grand Slam title No. 25 will have to wait – hopefully until Wimbledon, likely beyond – and he Jannik Sinner will become the new No. 1 on Monday.

As well, someone other than Djokovic, Roger Federer and Rafael Nadal will be Roland Garros champion for the first time in 20 years, with the notable exception of Stan Wawrinka in 2015.

“Fake” injury proves all too real

A few themes emerged in the wake of another great escape Monday night.

One of them is this: millions of tennis fans choose to still frame Djokovic as the overdramatic, talented but soft kid who tended not to stay the course in the big moments, the one who had contemporaries like Roger Federer and Andy Roddick questioning his stamina and champion’s mentality. The one who “fakes injuries” and makes “miraculous” recoveries and just is far too dramatic about it all.

Yes, he remains dramatic. But that kid is long gone, evolved into a now 37-year-old husband and father with a massive resumé that tops any and all rivals. With all of his riches and accolades, Djokovic has clearly been battling this season to maintain the motivation and burning desire that brought him here in the first place. Because there’s still work to do in this final lap.

There was a record on the line with his match, which he entered tied with Roger Federer with 369 Grand Slam tournament victories and with 58 major quarterfinals. And there are further records, such as a 25th major title which would sit him atop the list anyway you want to characterize it – men, women, both.

Djokovic has flinched before in the face of history – at the Tokyo Olympics, at the US Open when he was going for the “Calendar Slam”. He’s human. He may flinch again, with 37-year-old nerves far more easily jangled than those of his younger self. It’s said that while the skills may remain intact, the nerves are the first thing to betray you in the late stages of your career.

Because unlike your younger self, you now know what’s at stake. And you see the sands of the hourglass running down. And you know you have precious little road ahead and most of it behind you.

This time, his competitive nerve didn’t flinch. His 37-year-old body flinched – with a bit of an assist from the famed Philippe-Chatrier centre court.

But you would think that this chasing of history, the impressive way that Djokovic remains the best player in the world with kids almost young enough to be his sons emerging as the breakout talents of their own generation chasing him, would be something even his detractors could appreciate, even if begrudgingly.

How often have we seen the aging superstar battling Father Time turn around public opinion in their twilight, with the body of work and the pathos of it all making some fans appreciate what they – perhaps – should have all along. Martina Navratilova is a textbook example of just that.

But these days, especially with social media, it still doesn’t seem to be happening with Djokovic. It may never happen.

It is what it is. But it’s hard to wrap your head around. Did he have to withdraw from his next match for people to “believe” him? That’s what ended up happening. And even that might not do it.

It is every tennis fan’s right to like or dislike a player. To have their favorites. And Djokovic gives his haters plenty of material.

But to suggest he wasn’t injured Monday night is disingenuous at best, unfair at worst. And, in the end, guess what, he’s out.

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Those “softer” days are long gone now. According to Jeu, Set et Maths, Djokovic has retired 13 times on the main tour in his career, six of those in Grand Slams. But only … three of those retirements have taken place since the start of the 2012 season. Three, in 12 1/2 years.

He’s no more immune to injuries and niggles than any other player. But, with his talent and vast experience and the extended five-set format in majors that he masters better than any of the youngsters coming up who don’t have his experience, he more often than not has figured it out.

A slip of the knee

Djokovic said he felt pretty good coming into the match against Francisco Cerundolo, considering the 3 a.m. finish and the 4 1/2-hour match against the much-younger Lorenzo Musetti. And the way he blitzed through the first set, it showed.

The closed-stance backhand was probably the only stroke not affected as badly by Djokovic’s right knee issue. He worked to turn it into a backhand battle, to favour that side for himself and also to pick on Cerundolo’s weaker wing. It kept him in the match long enough for the meds to kick in.

But the Serb arrived at Roland Garros with the knee taped. So there was a pre-existing issue. “For the last couple weeks I have had, I would say, slight discomfort, I would call it that way, in the right knee,” Djokovic said after the 6-1, 5-7, 3-6, 7-5, 6-3 victory that took four hours, 39 minutes. Djokovic felt it more because the conditions here have been so cold. But it wasn’t tournament-ending.

“Then in the third game of the second set, I slipped, one of the many times that I slipped and fell today. That affected the knee,” Djokovic said.

It was clearly hampering him. Not so much on the serve or the closed-stance backhand, where the left knee is the one that bears the brunt on landing or planting. But on the open-stance forehand – particularly if he had to run wide to chase it – it was apparent.

But anyone who has played with pain and has good drugs available knows that if it’s not too bad, they’ll feel the effects when they kick in. That’s not voodoo; that’s better living through chemistry, as the saying goes.

The first pills didn’t do enough, so Djokovic had the doctor come out and dispense what he said was as much as he could give him.. After about a half hour, maybe a little more, they worked – in time for the fifth set.

In the meantime, Djokovic hung in there and competed. And Cerundolo, less experienced and, to put it bluntly, not as good as Djokovic is, couldn’t capitalize on the opportunity.

“I have had situations in my career where I had muscle tears and different things and played with that during the tournament. I’m not the only one. Many players have played with different injuries. There are medications, anti-inflammatories, stuff that you can do,” Djokovic said. “The adrenaline, of course, that kicks in, that helps you go through the tournament. Sometimes is a match or two, sometimes the entire tournament.

“I don’t know what will happen tomorrow or after tomorrow if I’ll be able to step out on the court and play. You know, I hope so. Let’s see what happens,” he added.

Change in court conditions

When it initially happened, it was probably more shock than anything else given Djokovic already had concerns about the knee. “I guess that’s probably a weaker part of my body that has had some few weeks of history that reacted,” he said.

Djokovic had asked for the courts to be swept more regularly than at the end of sets, which is the typical modus operandi. And he had a point about that, too.

To add insult to injury, a subsequent fall on the slippery court drew blood on the already-distressed right knee.

For the first 10 days of the tournament, the conditions have been cold and wet. On Monday, it was sunny – a welcome improvement, but one that considerably changed the conditions of the court.

Djokovic wanted them to sweep a little more often; he said he even asked one of the grounds crew when he was warming up earlier in the day if it could be done. It was hardly an unfair request. But the supervisor said the important thing was “consistency” in the way the courts are serviced around the grounds.

When he later tumbled behind the baseline – adding some blood to the already-distressed knee – it wasn’t because he slipped and fell. It was because he tried to slide … and there was no clay there. So his foot stopped short and he went down.

“I felt today with sun coming out thankfully after long days of rain, it has affected the court, has affected particularly the upper layers of the clay. I don’t know what exactly they have done. It seems like that some of the clay was removed, so there was very little, almost no clay on the court today,” he said. “We cannot treat these conditions as common conditions. They are not common. You know, we had rain. We had really bad weather for days, even a week. So that has affected the court itself.”

Now that the injury has been diagnosed and he’s out of the tournament, there no doubt will be questions to ask.

Last night on the Amazon broadcast, former player Jo-Wilfried Tsonga was prescient, saying it looked like it could be the meniscus – which would respond well to anti-inflammatories in the moment, but that Djokovic might well wake up this morning to find it swollen. And that he would know pretty quickly whether he could continue in the tournament.

Would he survive to play another day?

Djokovic was slated to play No. 7 seed Casper Ruud Wednesday, a quarterfinal that was a rematch of last year’s final.

“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. I guess we’ll do some more screening and tests and checkups tomorrow, as well,” he said. “We have done some with (the) doctor right now after the match. Some positive news but also some maybe concerns, so let’s see tomorrow. I can’t tell you more about it at the moment.”

In the end, the MRI revealed exactly what those concerns were.

(All screenshots from FranceTV)

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