On a day of rapidly swirling weather and fortunes, Novak Djokovic emerged from a second perfunctory win against a qualifier to stay in the conversation about who is good enough to stop Rafael Nadal winning his 11th French Open. He could get to the quarter-finals; once there he might even find another gear or two, which was his trademark in his pomp.
Certainly the former champion is in shape comparable to that of younger contenders in Alexander Zverev, who took five sets to defeat the world number 60 Dusan Lajovic, and Grigor Dimitrov, who survived a tempestuous battle over four hours and 19 minutes against the American Jared Donaldson, who was reduced at one point to serving under-arm.
Djokovic, who beat Dutra Silva in the first round, had to work his way past the stubborn challenge of 21-year-old Spanish qualifier Jaume Munar – ranked 155 in the world – after which he took time to reflect on the troubles of an absent friend, Andy Murray, with whom he has had long conversations.
“I can only imagine how difficult it is for him to deal with the circumstances of injury,” he said. “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, I guess, he wants to play.”
He does, passionately. But it will not be easy.
Nearly a year after he and Murray left Wimbledon, wounded losers who had driven each other to their physical limits in pursuit of the world number one ranking, the Serb is still standing – just, at 22 in the world – while the Scot’s prospects of fulfilling his commitment to end an 11-month sabbatical on the Dutch grass of Rosmalen the week after the French Open remain as clear as mud.
The hip surgery in January that Murray hoped would restore him to full fitness has not clicked as well as he had originally thought, and there is uncertainty in the camp that he will make it to the line in the Netherlands – or even Wimbledon.
If he misses the grasscourt season he will have no ranking. If he were to make his comeback where he has won two of his three grand slam titles, he would be outside the top 150 for the first time since August 2005. Those are scary digits.
Djokovic knows as much about struggle and injury as anyone on the Tour. His chronically painful right elbow kept him out for the rest of the year after Wimbledon, and his comeback, which involved a recent “minor procedure”, has gone from a limping exit in Melbourne to a decent stroll in Rome last week, where he fought hard against Nadal, and gathered conviction in two wins here.
On Friday he will need to lift his game against Roberto Bautista Agut, who saw off the Colombian qualifier Santiago Giraldo in just over two hours.
“We have spoken directly – and indirectly, through his brother,” Djokovic said of Murray after a workmanlike 7-6 (1), 6-4, 6-4 victory against Munar on Court Suzanne-Lenglen. “We are part of the [ATP] player council, and he was on the conference call. We got to have a FaceTime, as well. He was very committed for like three, four hours. He’s got two children now, and life at home for sure is different, and I can understand [that].”
As for his own up-and-down journey, Djokovic, true to his enthusiasm for spiritual enlightenment over the past couple of years, tried to put it in a philosophical context. Asked if getting out of his current rut was harder than when he had a similar experience in 2008, he said: “It’s all a personal perspective, how you perceive things in life. It can be really tough and it can be really easy. Everything starts and ends with us in our minds.
“To sit here and talk about how tough it is, and you have people starving to death, for me there is no point in talking about that. It’s just the way it is.
“As an athlete I have to face these challenges, I will call them and, if I overcome them or not, it’s just a matter of work that I have put in, luck at times, and circumstances. That’s it. I have achieved so much in my life and I’m very, very grateful for that.”