Bursting with confidence and a set lead, the Roland Garros crowd rushing into a frenzy behind him, Tsitsipas began to kick the ball with abandon, moving an apparently hampered Djokovic back and forth and going to the net to complete the stitches. He broke Djokovic’s serve in Game 1, then, leading 4-2, laced a forehand down the line and forced Djokovic to make another mistake to get his second break of serve.
During the change, Djokovic suffocates his face with his towel, showing a kind of desperation and discouragement that he rarely does. A match later, Tsitsipas had a two-set lead and the match was up for him.
It’s one thing to win two sets in a Grand Slam match. It’s a whole other thing to win third against a player who is on the verge of winning as many Grand Slam singles titles as any man who has ever picked up a racket.
Leading 2-1 in the third set, Djokovic started jumping on Tsitsipas’s serve for the first time in nearly an hour, pushing him back onto the pitch and moving him side to side. His shots started to land in places that left Tsitsipas totally out of position once he caught up with them.
It was as if Djokovic had finally realized that if he didn’t have the strength to swing an ax, he could still use a scalpel. His service often struggled to reach 100 miles per hour. And at the same time, the precision that had been with Tsitsipas for much of the afternoon was gone.
“I felt like he could read my game better,” Tsitsipas said.
At the fifth breaking point of the match, Djokovic sent his return deep on Tsitsipas’ backhand, and Tsitsipas sent him back to the middle of the doubles lane. Djokovic had a lifeline and five games later he had the third set. Tsitsipas called a trainer to stretch his hips.
Djokovic did not stop there.
The fourth set felt like target practice, a series of surgical strikes from Djokovic that resulted in as many long and wide shots, or easy balls in midfield, from Tsitsipas. A masterful backhand shot from Djokovic from behind the baseline gave Djokovic a second serve break and a 3-0 lead. Tsitsipas had to fight just to keep the scenery from being embarrassing.