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It usually doesn’t take until mid-May for Novak Djokovic to win his first title of the year, but this season has been unlike any other for the world No. 1.
He was deported ahead of the Australian Open in January after failing to get vaccinated against Covid-19, and then missed the “Sunshine Swing” in Indian Wells and Miami due to his vaccination status.
But he finally captured his first title of 2022 where he overcame Stefanos Tsitsipas 6-0, 7-6(5) in one hour, 37 minutes to capture a record-extending 38th ATP Masters 1000 crown on Sunday at the Italian Open.
The Serbian became the fifth man in the Open Era to earn 1,000 match wins when he defeated Casper Ruud in the semifinals and he backed that up with a hard-fought display against Tsitsipas for his sixth Rome title. He improved to 13-4 in 2022 and became the oldest Rome champion at 34 years, 11 months and 23 days.
His victory came after fellow world No. 1 Iga Świątek, won her 28th straight match and fifth consecutive tournament by defeating Ons Jabeur, 6-2, 6-2, in the women’s final.
“I pleasantly surprised myself I can say. I had a clear game plan and I knew what to expect, so I knew what I had to do, but I did play a perfect first set,” Djokovic said in his on-court interview. “After that it was a little tighter. At this level, one or two points can turn a match and he was then back in the game at 4-1 up.
“The match could easily have gone to a third set but I managed to find the right shots at the right time to come back into the match. The tie-break I was maybe an inch better, but it was a tight, tight tie-break for both of us.”
Tsitsipas, who also expressed reservations about getting vaccinated before ultimately doing so, said he supported Djokovic’s decisions “in the past,” which presumably includes his decision not to get vaccinated.
“I have so much respect for Novak,” he said. “Every single decision he has made, I understand it. Even the ones in the past, I support them.”
Djokovic will now have a week to prepare for Roland Garros, which begins May 22 and where he will attempt to tie Rafael Nadal at 21 Grand Slam singles titles.
“Nadal is my greatest rival of all time,” Djokovic said. “As long as he plays, I play, too.”
Djokovic is the defending champion in Paris after ousting Nadal in an epic semifinal a year ago that ended Nadal’s 35-match winning streak at the event, and then coming back from 0-2 down against Tsitsipas in the final to capture his 19th major title.
Still, 19-year-old Carlos Alcaraz will enter Roland Garros as a slight betting favorite, according to Caesars Sportsbook.
Alcaraz is at +175 with Djokovic at +200 and Nadal, the 13-time French Open champion, at +250.
Alcaraz is coming off winning in Madrid a week ago where he became the first man to beat Nadal and Djokovic at the same clay court event before he routed world No. 3 Alexander Zverev in the final.
Still, he has never been past the quarterfinals at a major, where best-of-5 matches can be much different from best-of-3.
Former world No. 1 Andy Roddick said Sunday on Tennis Channel Djokovic “almost has to be the favorite at this point” at Roland Garros. Roddick had previously called Alcaraz the “co-favorite” along with Nadal.
As for Nadal, Roddick pointed to the Spaniard’s chronic foot injury which bothered him in the quarterfinals in Madrid against Alcaraz and then in his loss to Denis Shapovalov in Rome. Nadal said afterward he plans to have his doctor with him in Paris.
“There’s lots of questions,” Roddick said on Tennis Channel. “There’s a certain foot that we have some interest in. Obviously, little old ‘Chucky’ Alcaraz has come on the scene and gotten wins against both of them [Nadal and Djokovic]. Stef Tsitsipas….if I had $20 to bet, he might be fourth on my list of favorites even though he’s had this standout season and arguably been the most consistent throughout the larger sample size of it.”
Four-time Grand Slam champion and former world No. 1, meantime, says of Djokovic: “I think he’s perfectly primed [for Roland Garros]. He’s erased the questions that are now all of sudden firmly in front of Rafa Nadal.”