French Open 2017: The return of Novak

By Andy Cunningham

BBC tennis correspondent

Media playback is not supported on this device The second set changed everything, says Andy Murray

Battling through an unsettling dip in form has been critical to Novak Djokovic’s stardom.

He had already lost in the quarter-finals of the Australian Open this year when, in February, he sat courtside at Roland Garros and announced to the world that he’d needed elbow surgery.

With some people, Djokovic’s world had now fallen. The question was: did he even want to be a tennis player?

A week later, he practised with Rafael Nadal in Barcelona and clinched his 23rd career clay-court title.

In the past, Andy Murray and Roger Federer’s struggles in their careers have been a source of intense scrutiny, but Djokovic’s injury was treated with far more sympathy and lack of interest.

Now, the former world number one is back in the form that won him 14 Grand Slam titles between 2011 and 2016.

The Serb is the second seed at Roland Garros, where he is on course to win a sixth title.

Djokovic underlined his relevance again by overcoming 10th seed Juan Martin del Potro in Madrid and defending champion Rafael Nadal in Rome.

It is almost a cliché that, when everyone is talking about your misfortune, you have to somehow prove the doubters wrong. Djokovic did that with victory over Nadal at the French Open.

“This is the best part of my career,” he said after that match. “It never stops.”

After the arduous and painful rehabilitation on his elbow, Djokovic has turned his attention to keeping form.

Andy Murray predicted this would be Djokovic’s best French Open

Federer, who was not even in the top 10 after he lost to Milos Raonic in February, was the favourite to win Roland Garros.

Cancelled tournaments and planned holidays in January were rescheduled to allow Djokovic to prepare in time for Paris, starting with a three-set victory over Borna Coric in Monte Carlo.

He overcame Jo-Wilfried Tsonga, Stan Wawrinka and Dominic Thiem in the quarter-finals and semi-finals of the Italian Open.

In Madrid, Federer and Murray both fell at the first hurdle, but Djokovic has now beaten Nadal at the clay-court majors in each of the past two years.

While the most popular current player on the ATP Tour is Federer, who will be defending his Wimbledon title, Djokovic’s consistent win-loss record is the biggest factor in persuading people he can make history at Roland Garros and become the first man to win five consecutive titles since Rod Laver in 1969.

Injuries are never easy to overcome, and even the great champions have suffered without their best form at certain points in their careers.

Rafael Nadal has suffered some lean times since his French Open triumph in 2013

Djokovic has had one of those seasons – he looked vulnerable when he was knocked out in the first round of Wimbledon in 2015 – but he has been dogged by doubts since losing in a four-set epic to Stan Wawrinka in the French Open final in 2015.

The 31-year-old has always found it hard to keep his head in the right place and admitted he had gone through “a bad patch in the last 10 days”, but what he achieved in the two weeks after his French Open lay-off was exceptional.

His opponent in the semi-finals of Monte Carlo was world number 63 Ruben Bemelmans.

Yet Djokovic showed bravery in negating the threat posed by the unseeded Belgian, who had beaten Stan Wawrinka in the previous round.

He has been magnanimous in defeat at the French Open before, drawing strength from Nadal’s victory. He underlined his version of events when he said: “I went through worse moments in my career before.”

It is easy to write off Djokovic after a dip in form and in the first six weeks of the season he had barely played.

He won 14 Grand Slam titles in three years but is now almost on par with Roger Federer, who is 17 to his junior, in terms of experience.

Djokovic missed eight months of 2014 and last year’s French Open because of a back injury

Even three years ago, Djokovic could have been accused of premature retirement, having missed almost half of the 2014 season and withdrawn from the 2015 French Open with an elbow injury.

However, Djokovic is now 30, far from the young player he was, and more evidence shows that he will not be taken lightly at Roland Garros, starting with his first-round opponent Fernando Verdasco

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