Tuesday was the day the world No.1 was to burst back on the tour after finding himself side-lined by his refusal to be vaccinated against the Covid virus but, while he produced a gritty performance, the result after nearly three hours of play, went against him.
I expected this match to be a really tough match, a physical battle, and that’s what it was. Unfortunately I’m on the shorter end of the stick, and my week ends here Novak Djokovic
Novak Djokovic, playing in only his second tournament of the season, said he “ran out of gas” as he fell to Alejandro Davidovich Fokina 6-3 6-7(5) 6-1 in the second round of the Rolex Monte Carlo Masters.
Incredibly the Serbian dropped his serve nine times to the 46th-ranked Spaniard who held his nerve to complete the biggest win of his career and progress to a possible third-round meeting with Britain’s No.2 Dan Evans, who earlier in the day had opened his own account with a straight sets victory.
But despite it being a busy day with a number of excellent match ups, the main focus of interest was the Djokovic match and how he would mark his return to the tour now that Covid restrictions are being eased globally.
“I was hanging on the ropes the entire match. I was really chasing the result constantly,” Djokovic said of his rusty performance having only previously played three matches in Dubai last February.
“I didn’t like the way I felt physically in the third (set). I just ran out of gas completely.
“Just couldn’t really stay in the rally with him. If you can’t stay in the rally, not feeling your legs on the clay, it’s mission impossible.
“I don’t like that kind of feeling I experienced in the third, but I’m going to look with my team into reasons why that was the case and go back to the drawing board and hopefully next week will be better in Belgrade.”
Prior to the match Djokovic, the 2013 and 2015 Monte Carlo champion, had said he would find the occasion of his return following his lengthy absence, “difficult, mentally and emotionally” but added he was “moving on” and the loss will not have dented his usual confidence in himself.
The 23-year-old blonde Spaniard Davidovich Fokina, son of a Swedish father and Russian mother, had lost last year, both previous meetings to Djokovic in straight sets when they met in Rome and the Tokyo Olympics, must have surprised the top seed with his aggressive game which swept him into a 4-1 lead and then hold on for the opening set.
It was much the same in the second as Fokina surge into a 3-0 lead but this time Djokovic recovered to win five of the next six games and serve for the set only to falter at 5-4. However, he hung on to force a tie-break where he levelled the match and went into alpha male mode with roars and gestures to declare he was back!
That proved short-lived as Fokina broke him immediately at the start of the decider helped by a Djokovic double fault as the 20-time Grand Slam champion struggled to improve on a single game in the third set.
“I always believed that I could come back and win the match, and I stayed there even though a lot of things were against me in terms of how I felt on the court,” Djokovic said later on the conclusion of the two-hour 54-minute match.
“Game-wise, physically I was just far from my best.
“Of course in those types of conditions and circumstances, then you have to really work two times more than you normally would,” he added.
“I expected this match to be a really tough match, a physical battle, and that’s what it was. Unfortunately I’m on the shorter end of the stick, and my week ends here.”
Djokovic struck 27 winners to Fokina’s 51 and made 37 unforced errors to his opponent’s 34. He also hit just one ace and delivered 5 double-faults, breaking Fokina 4 times from 11 opportunities. In comparison the Spaniard didn’t hit a single ace, made 5 double-faults and had 20 chances to break Djokovic, succeeding just 9 times.
“I knew a few days ago when I spoke to you (the media) that it’s going to take some time for me to really feel my best on the clay,” said Djokovic who hasn’t progressed past the quarter-finals since 2015.
“That’s historically always been the case. I have never played very well in the opening tournaments of the clay season.
“But it’s okay. Obviously it is what it is. I have to accept the defeat and keep working.”
Alejandro Davidovich Fokina took his chances
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On the winning side of the net, an elated Davidovich Fokina, a quarter-finalist last year in Monaco, said after the match: “This win is so special to me because I grew up watching Nole [Djokovic] and I’m a big fan of his. I knew Nole didn’t have the confidence because he didn’t play a lot this season … I had my chances in the beginning of the match and I took them.
“When he won the second set it was tough mentally, but I work hard to be focused. I had to be prepared for the war.”
His next opponent will be either Belgium’s David Goffin, last week’s Marrakesh champion, or Britain’s Dan Evans, both plyers having posted straight set wins in their opening matches.
Goffin, a wild card entry, comfortably defeated Jiri Lecheka, a Czech qualifier, 6-4 6-3 while Evans beat Benjamin Bonzi of France 6-0 7-6(4), a Lucky Loser entry following the withdrawal through injury of Spain’s 14th seeded Roberto Bautista Agut.
The 31-year-old from Birmingham swept through the opening set only for Bonzi to finally find his game in the second but the British No 2 managed to remain focused and raise his own when required in the tie-break.
Evans, the world No.27 who scored a career boosting win over Djokovic last year to reach the semi-finals, needed the win if he was to have any chance of protecting those valuable ranking points earned on that occasion.
In other action, defending champion from Greece, Stefanos Tsitsipas eased into the last 16 with a 6-3 6-0 victory over Italy’s Fabio Fognini, who won the title in 2019 while Taylor Fritz of the US, the only player to beat Rafael Nadal this year en route to the trophy at Indian Wells last month, overcame home wildcard Lucas Catarina 6-7(6) 7-6(5) 6-4.
Daniel Evans gets his campaign underway
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