Novak Djokovic in ominous return to form as he aims to peak for French Open
World No 1 collected his 33rd Masters title in Madrid, but the scary thing for his rivals is that it all looked so easy
It looks like Dominic Thiem was on the money when he reflected on his defeat to Novak Djokovic in the Madrid Open semi-finals.
"If Djokovic played like this in previous tournaments he wouldn’t had those early losses," the Austrian world No 4 said after his 7-6, 7-6 defeat to the top-seeded Serbian on Saturday. "But he always plays better when we get closer to grand slams."
Indeed he does. After winning a third successive grand slam title at the Australian Open in January, Djokovic slumped to early defeats at Indian Wells, Miami and Monte Carlo, twice to players ranked outside the top 20.
But with the French Open just around the corner, Djokovic has started to raise his level, and his victory in the Madrid Masters 1000 tournament was a timely reminder of why the 15-time major champion remains light years ahead of his rivals.
Having received a bye in the first round and a walkover in the quarter-finals following Marin Cilic's withdrawal with illness, Djokovic only needed to win four matches in the Spanish capital to clinch the title.
Yet, that should not take away from a week in which the 31-year-old Serb looked to be edging closer toward his rock-solid, clinical best. He didn't lose a set all week and in the final, didn't even face a break point against an admittedly exhausted Stefanos Tsitsipas.
"I feel like this tournament win was very important for my level of confidence because after the Australian Open I wasn't playing my best, I wasn't finding the right game and the consistency on the court in Indian Wells, Miami and Monte Carlo," Djokovic said.
"(It's a) very important time for me in the season, because this gives me a lot of confidence prior to Rome and, of course, Roland Garros, where I definitely want to play my best."
The scary prospect for Djokovic's rivals is that it was all quite easy in Madrid. Even when his serve was broken a few times against Thiem, there was always the sense Djokovic would regain control.
Djokovic has always been a player motivated by set goals, and having drawn level with Nadal on 33 Masters titles in Madrid - his first clay court trophy since winning the French Open three years ago - an immediate target will be to pull clear by going back-to-back and winning a fifth title in Rome this week.
"These are the best tournaments, biggest tournaments we have in our sport, in the ATP, of course alongside the Grand Slams," Djokovic said. "This is as important and as good as it gets."
As Nadal struggles to hit his previously incomparable clay court heights - three successive semi-final exits have inevitably rang alarm bells - Djokovic is primed to take advantage of his long-time rival's plight.
At this stage, the Spanish world No 2 is the marginal favourite to win a record-extending 12th French Open title, but another strong showing from Djokovic in Rome - combined with another relative disappointment by Nadal - will swing expectations in favour of the rejuvenated world No 1.
Updated: May 14, 2019 08:13 AM