Djokovic motivated and fresh as he chases first Monte-Carlo title since 2015

The world No 1 looks fit and strong as he plays his first event since February because of an enforced break

Novak Djokovic, Monte-Carlo 2023 Novak Djokovic, Monte-Carlo 2023 | © Chryslène Caillaud / Panoramic

It may just be a deadly combination; a fresh and fully motivated Novak Djokovic for the first Masters 1000 of the clay-court season.

The world No 1 begins his clay-court campaign this week in Monte-Carlo, having not played since Dubai in February due to his inability to enter the United States over his decision not to be vaccinated against Covid-19.

It’s a choice he is content with, but one that has seen him miss two of the last five Grand Slams. It’s something that can be taken in two ways; on the one hand, he has missed out on big opportunities to add to his Grand Slam tally; on the other, he’s won two of the past three, taking advantage of being fresh and doubly motivated, spurred on by what he sees as the injustice of the situation.

Whichever way you look at it, Djokovic has accepted his plight and so he is level on 22 Grand Slams with Rafael Nadal, heading toward Roland-Garros, where he will try to deny the Spaniard a record 15th crown and move ahead in the slam stakes.

Enforced break may have been blessing in disguise for Djokovic

First, though, he will play in Monte-Carlo, where he won the title in 2013 and 2015 but where he has not gone beyond the quarter-finals since the second of his title wins. The good news for Djokovic fans is that he “feels great” and the fact that he’s been able to take a break from the Tour again has enabled him to return fresh.

“The last couple of years I’m used to it, you know,” he said of the enforced breaks, speaking to reporters in Monte-Carlo on Sunday. “I mean, I haven’t played America last year at all and then this year again. But it’s okay. You know, it is what it is. I did more training on clay, which is, of course, positive, if you think about the clay season.

“And I haven’t had much success in Monte Carlo in the last three years, I haven’t played really good tennis here. So I’m hoping that this year I can start to play better than I did in the previous years and hopefully build my form as I’m coming closer to Paris.”

I do pick and choose the events where I want to peak and how I want to build my form and how I want to work around my schedule.

Novak Djokovic

It’s tempting to say less can be more for Djokovic, who turns 36 next month. But the Serb is so fit and so dedicated to the art of winning titles that even if he’s able to take a bit more time off, he’s focused on winning the title every time he steps on court. There’s no taking things easy until the slams come round.

“Of course, things are not the same like they were 10 years ago in terms of maybe the amount of vital energy that I have to to to play as many tournaments and be so intensely involved in competition on the tour as the other younger guys,” he said. “So of course, I do pick and choose the events where I want to peak and how I want to build my form and how I want to work around my schedule. The Grand Slams are the tournaments where I peak and (next) it’s Roland Garros, it’s no secret, you know, where I want to be able to play my best tennis.

“But as I said, anywhere you go, any tournament you play, you want to you want to win. I mean, at least that’ has been my mentality for many years. And I have won basically all the (big) tournaments so I always have that kind of in the back of my mind, approaching the tournament again, knowing that I have done it, why not to think that I can do it again.

Nadal’s absence is an opportunity, I think, for for all of us others, when he’s not there to to try to try to go far and grab a title.

Novak Djokovic

“Certain breaks in the schedule, of course, when they’re voluntarily made (are) better than not. But I did have quite a few official matches this year already, So compared to last year (when he missed the Australian Open after eventually being refused entry), it’s a different situation. I feel I have match played in my legs more than enough to to, to be happy.

“It’s a fine balance. I guess that’s another maybe positive note about not competing on a weekly basis that you can give your body time to recuperate, regain the energy and strength, and then have weeks of good training and kind of a mini mini pre-season preparation type of period where you can build that over all of the aspects or elements that you need in order to compete at the highest level consistently, particularly on the surface that is physically the most demanding surface.”

No Nadal means an added chance

Rafael Nadal and Carlos Alcaraz both withdrew from the draw in the days leading up to the event, through injury. The absence of Nadal is felt by everyone, the 11-time champion such a fixture in Monte-Carlo down the years.

But his absence, and that of Alcaraz, who has been swapping the No 1 ranking with Djokovic of late, means the 35-year-old feels even more confident.

“Of course, in one way it’s a loss for the tournament and for tennis in general, because he’s by far the most successful clay court tennis player of all time,” he said. “We know how many times he has won Monaco and all the other events we played. But on the other hand, it’s an opportunity, I think, for for all of us others, when he’s not there to try to go far and grab a title.”

Djokovic on Alcaraz, Sinner and Rune: “Maybe it’s the next big three”

Alcaraz’s win in Indian Wells temporarily put him back above Djokovic to No 1 and although he lost it when he went out to Daniil Medvedev in the semis in Miami, the Spaniard is clearly a massive threat. A hand injury kept him out of Monte-Carlo but he is expected to return soon and everyone is wary of him.

“The way he has been playing recently, but also in the last year and a half, he has been one of the best players in the world on any surface,” Djokovic said. “And he has proven that he can win a Grand Slam, he won it on hardcourt where probably most of the people thought that he’s going to win the first slam in clay. So that tells you how complete of a player he is.

“I think he has great mentality, fighting spirit, always pushes hard, takes away the time from opponent and I think he adjusts well to every opponent to be able to adapt his game tactically. Very, very complete player and just amazing. For our sport to have a champion like him, no doubt. And he’s so young.

“And it’s also refreshing to have another great rivalry that people get excited about, which is him and (Jannik) Sinner. We have seen some thrilling, exciting matches between the two of them, (including) in Miami. So I’m sure that those two guys, along with (Holger) Rune from the younger generations, are going to be the leaders. So maybe that’s the next big three.”

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