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‘I can only imagine how difficult injury recovery has been’

While several of the leading men’s seeds were locked in five-set battles at Roland Garros yesterday, Novak Djokovic slipped through in understated style. The 2016 champion notched a 7-6, 6-4, 6-4 victory over qualifier Jaume Munar, and then sent out a supportive message to his old friend and rival, Andy Murray.

It’s often forgotten that Murray has been among the most consistent performers at Roland Garros in recent years, reaching four straight semi-finals between 2014 and 2017. 

But last year’s deep run, which ended at the hands of Stan Wawrinka, represented his final tournament before a niggling pain began in his right hip. It seemed innocuous enough at the time, but fifty-one weeks and one keyhole operation later, Murray has yet to regain full fitness.

“We spoke recently because we are part of the [Association of Tennis Professionals] player council,” Djokovic explained. “We had a meeting and he was on the conference call. We got to have a FaceTime for three or four hours as part of that meeting.

“He’s got two children now,” Djokovic added. “Life at home for sure for him is different. And I can only imagine how difficult it is for him, as well, to deal with the circumstances of injury. You know, that’s something that I can relate to. I have had quite a similar situation, although his injury takes more time, obviously. Hopefully we can see him playing on grass, because that’s where he wants to play.”

Murray is entered into the Libema Open in Rosmalen, Holland, which starts in ten days’ time and is intended to begin his grass-court build-up for Wimbledon. Unfortunately, the omens do not seem positive, and another late withdrawal – to match those he made from the US Open and the Brisbane International – would hardly be a surprise.

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No-one in British tennis has seen Murray on a court for several weeks, barring a sponsor’s appearance with some aspiring juniors at the Hurlingham Club. There is a suggestion that he might plan to start hitting again in the next few days, but even a wholly shipshape player would surely want more than a week’s preparation for his first event in a year.

As for Djokovic, he now appears to have shrugged off the elbow pain that dogged him for a couple of seasons, and finally led him to undergo a “small medical intervention” early this year. Mentally, though, he is still searching for his old self – literally so, in fact.

“I have been visualising conversations with my younger self, especially in the last year or so,” Djokovic said. “What I’m getting from my younger self is ‘Smile and remember why you started playing it.’ If this becomes a mechanical thing for me, it’s not good.

“Because the kids, 99.9 per cent start because they just fall in love with a sport. And nowadays, sport is becoming a little bit of too much of a business, in my opinion. Going back to that inner child is very essential.”

Djokovic poses after beating Murray during their final tennis match at the ATP Qatar Open Credit: AFP

This topic only arose in the interview room because of the ten-year age-gap between Djokovic and Munar, a 21-year-old Spanish qualifier who trains at the Rafa Nadal Academy in Majorca. It took Djokovic a relatively sluggish 2hr 18min to subdue the world No. 155 – but this was still a major improvement on the lengthy five-set wins recorded yesterday by Alexander Zverev, Grigor Dimitrov and Kei Nishikori.

Another notable statistic was Djokovic’s tally of just three aces, which was exceeded by his five double-faults. “If you look in my matches from Australia and Indian Wells and now, I have three different service motions already this year.” he said. “I had to alternate it a lot because of the injury. I changed the racket, and I start to explore different technical changes and movements in my motion. Unfortunately, every little thing that you change affects the big picture.”

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One of the day’s other talking points cropped up in Dimitrov’s 6-7, 6-4, 4-6, 6-4, 10-8 win over 21-year-old American Jared Donaldson, which occupied 4hr 19min. Restricted by cramp in the final stages, Donaldson dropped in two underarm serves, winning the first point but losing the second. His trickery recalled the most famous underarm serve of all, also delivered here at Roland Garros, by Michael Chang in his shock 1989 final victory over Ivan Lendl. Chang, too, was cramping up at the time.

“I know how it is to feel like you’re cramping.” said a sanguine Dimitrov later. “So I guess he just wanted to find some other way. I think it was very smart for him to do that.”

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