For two sets and more than two hours at the French Open on Monday, Novak Djokovic found himself being outplayed by a 19-year-old rival from Italy making his Grand Slam debut.
And yet, to hear Djokovic tell it afterward, he had the kid right where he wanted him. Which turned out to be true.
Rafael Nadal also faced an Italian who’s just 19 in the fourth round — and also took a bit of time to get going. Nadal’s trouble lasted all of eight games and less than 45 minutes Monday before he took control, ran his Roland Garros streak to 35 straight sets and joined Djokovic in reaching a record 15th quarterfinal at the clay-court major tournament.
After dropping a pair of tiebreakers, Djokovic suddenly went from a big deficit to his best tennis. He won 13 games in a row before Lorenzo Musetti stopped playing because of lower back pain and cramps while trailing 6-7 (7), 6-7 (2), 6-1, 6-0, 4-0.
“I like to play young guys in best-of-five, because I feel even if they are leading a set or two sets to love, as it was the case today, I still like my chances,” said the top-seeded Djokovic, who is 34, “because I feel like I’m physically fit and I know how to wear my opponent down.”
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Nadal, who turned 35 last week, trailed 5-3 early on versus the 18th-seeded Jannik Sinner, who served for the first set at 5-4.
“I was playing a very good player with a big future,” Nadal said.
But 13-time French Open champion Nadal took eight games in a row and, after a blip in the second set, resumed his excellent play and closed his 7-5, 6-3, 6-0 win on a 10-game run.
Musetti, a talented Italian so good at the outset with his one-handed backhand and tremendous touch, is hardly used to this best-of-five format at the majors, and he took a medical timeout after the fourth.
“It didn’t make sense to keep playing. I couldn’t win any points or stay in the rallies. It was hard for me to move,” Musetti said. “I was at my limit.”
Djokovic wound up 9 for 9 on his break-point chances and with a 53-30 edge in winners.
Eventually, Djokovic earned his fifth career comeback from two sets down by limiting his mistakes and making Musetti look like what he is: Someone with plenty of promise but not much experience.
Djokovic’s 49th major quarterfinal will come against another Italian, No. 9 seed Matteo Berrettini, who advanced without needing to swing his racket.
That’s because the man Berrettini was supposed to face, 20-time Grand Slam champion Roger Federer, withdrew Sunday in order to let his surgically repaired right knee and the rest of his 39-year-old body recover with an eye to Wimbledon, which starts June 28.
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