Novak Djokovic Begins His Bid For A 25Th Grand Slam Title With A First-Round French Open Win

Serbia's Novak Djokovic plays a shot against France's Pierre-Hugues Herbert during their first round match of the French Open tennis tournament at the Roland Garros stadium in Paris, Tuesday, May 28, 2024. (AP Photo/Christophe Ena)
Serbia's Novak Djokovic plays a shot against France's Pierre-Hugues Herbert during their first round match of the French Open tennis tournament at the Roland Garros stadium in Paris, Tuesday, May 28, 2024. (AP Photo/Christophe Ena)
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PARIS (AP) — Ignore the straight-set score: Novak Djokovic was not quite at his impervious best in the first round of the French Open on Tuesday night, and his 6-4, 7-6 (3), 6-4 win over Pierre-Hugues Herbert was not enough to alter the defending champion's “low expectations” at this tournament.

“I don’t want to get too excited,” Djokovic said. “I thought it was a good performance for me. Solid. Of course, I could have done better, I think, on return games, but also credit to him for serving very well, for changing things up.”

It's been a rougher-than-usual season so far for Djokovic, and while there were some signs of breaking out of his 2024 funk during the course of the contest at Court Philippe Chatrier, he still has room for improvement as he attempts to become the first player in tennis history to claim 25 Grand Slam singles trophies. There's no doubt he cares about such things.

“Grand Slams are the ones that are basically getting me up from the bed every day. Knowing that I have to hit the practice courts, I always think about what I can do in Grand Slams,” he said. “So here I am. Hopefully I can have another deep run.”

That's what Herbert expected to see.

“I knew, from the beginning," Herbert said, “that I'm going to have in front of me the ‘Novak of the Grand Slams.’ ... It's just the intensity of concentration.”

Djokovic is a three-time title winner at Roland Garros who needs to return to the final to retain his No. 1 ranking. But he arrived in Paris without having done that at any tournament this year. He is 0-3 in semifinals — including a loss last week at the lower-tier Geneva Open on red clay — and this victory across 2 1/2 hours only served to make his overall record 15-6.

So when he spoke at a news conference on Sunday, Djokovic described his mindset heading into the French Open this way: “Low expectations and high hopes.” Then he pointed out, “Anything but a title, for me, is not satisfactory,” which is understandable given his remarkable resume.

“In the moments when it mattered, I think I delivered. Played a great tiebreak. Stayed focused,” Djokovic said about Tuesday's performance. “I’m glad that I started the way I started, the way I felt on the court. Comparing to the previous weeks of tournaments I played, I felt good. Better. So I’m moving in a positive direction. Yeah, it’s just the beginning.”

He seemed a bit edgy at moments against Herbert, a 33-year-old Frenchman who owns a career Grand Slam in doubles but never has been past the third round at any major in singles and is currently ranked 142nd.

The home crowd tried to push Herbert, repeatedly calling out his name, even imploring him in English at one point by chanting, “Let's go, Pierre-Hugues! Let's go!” They jeered Djokovic late in the third set when he went to the sideline to towel off after he slipped, stumbled and tumbled onto the clay chasing a ball.

A day after sitting in the Chatrier stands to watch rival Rafael Nadal's first-round loss against Alexander Zverev, Djokovic was competing in the chill of a 60-degree evening (15 Celsius), and he did not always look happy. He rolled his head back after one miss while making four groundstroke mistakes to get broken early in the second set. He repeatedly gestured to ballkids to give him tennis balls so he could prepare to serve.

Although Herbert's game did not demand a maximum expenditure of energy from Djokovic, there certainly was enough to keep things interesting. And by the end, the winner totals were 37 for Herbert, 29 for Djokovic.

There were some strokes of brilliance from Djokovic, to be sure, and he covered the court well when sprinting after the drop shots Herbert kept trying. The highlight for Djokovic was probably the closed-stance sliding backhand winner that earned him a match point — which was converted when Herbert double-faulted to end it.

Still, the statistic that truly mattered was the one that shows Djokovic is now 69-0 in opening matches at Slam events since starting his career with a 3-2 mark in first-rounders.

Djokovic's second-round opponent will be 63rd-ranked Roberto Carballés Baena of Spain.

The first round closed on a day during which rain delayed play for several hours early in the day on all but the two principal courts, which are outfitted with retractable roofs.

Other winners Tuesday included the man Djokovic beat in last year's French Open final, Casper Ruud, and past major champions Aryna Sabalenka and Elena Rybakina.

Ruud, who also was the runner-up to Nadal in Paris in 2022 and leads the ATP with 36 wins in 2024, beat Felipe Meligeni Alves 6-3, 6-4, 6-3.

Two-time Australian Open champion Aryna Sabalenka overpowered Erika Andreeva 6-1, 6-2, and 2022 Wimbledon winner Elena Rybakina beat Greet Minnen 6-2, 6-3.

Sabalenka is trying to become the first woman since Serena Williams in 2015 to win the Australian Open and Roland Garros in the same season and get halfway to a calendar-year Grand Slam.

“I’m just trying to separate myself from all those facts,” said Sabalenka, who is No. 2 in the rankings behind Iga Swiatek. “I mean, I know that if I’ll be able to focus on myself and I’ll be able to fight for every point and try to find a solution in each game, I will be able to win these big tournaments. But I just try to take it step-by-step.”


Associated Press Writer Tom Nouvian contributed to this report.


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