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World No. 1 Novak Djokovic has now played six matches in 2022, going 4-2 and playing three matches in his return to the court after his vaccination status kept him away from a few events, including Indian Wells and Miami. This week, he’s back on familiar territory, playing on his home soil for the ATP 250 Serbia Open in Belgrade. With the French Open still a month away, it’s time to start thinking about Djokovic's early odds to win.
Rafael Nadal +150
Novak Djokovic +260
Carlos Alcaraz +330
Stefanos Tsitsipas +450
Alexander Zverev +1400
If you’ve been following along, you are holding at least a 12-1 future ticket on Alcaraz to win. What people get wrong about the idea of placing futures, is that, yes, you take an early futures wager because you think a player can win but more importantly, you take an early futures wager because you predict the line value will be lost as the event gets closer.
That was definitely the reason behind backing Alcaraz so far out from the start of the French Open. Though he is just 18 years old, he has been showcasing a high level of play, which resulted in a win at the ATP 500 Rio in February followed by an ATP 1000 Miami victory in March.
Will he win at Roland Garros? Time will tell, but holding a +1200 or higher ticket on someone now priced anywhere between +275 and +350 is value.
Back to Djokovic. This year has been less than ideal, having not been allowed to play the Australian Open in January, forced to skip Indian Wells and still uncertain whether he will be able to participate in Wimbledon or the U.S. Open. For now though, he is back to playing and as of Thursday appears to be back to form. Let’s take a look.
ATP 1000 Monte Carlo Masters
Djoker’s first match back to the courts since his quarterfinal loss to Jiri Vesely in Dubai in February was a tough one. For a first match back after a layoff, one of the opponents you don’t want to face is a great clay court player like Spain’s Alejandro Davidovich Fokina. It was a three-set loss that highlighted Djoker’s vulnerability to long match play.
Fokina played remarkable tennis, no doubt, with some great defense that kept points long and hard fought. In a post-match interview, Djokovic revealed that he simply "ran out of gas" in the third set and could not keep pace with the Spaniard. Story checks out as the 3-6, 7-5, 1-6 score shows.
ATP 250 Serbia Open
Entering this week, Djokovic held a 10-2 win/loss record in Belgrade, which includes two titles In 2011 and 2009. Last year, he lost in the semifinals to Russia’s Aslan Karatsev, who had been having an incredible year.
Djoker’s first match was another tough one, this time against another formidable clay court opponent in Laslo Djere. Up a set and a break, Djere looked to be on his way to a victory, serving 4-3 in the second set until Djokovic found an opportunity to break back in the next game after.
A similar situation occurred against fellow Serbian Miomir Kecmanovic in the quarterfinal. Down a set and a break, Djokovic found his way to back-to-back victories with the semifinals on deck Saturday.
French Open outlook
With these three matches, Djokovic has spent over eight hours on the court after two months away from match play. It was reps that Djoker was looking for and it was certainly reps he got. Truth be told, he couldn’t have asked for three better opponents to face in his return. Time on the court has led to him finding his rhythm, timing and fitness, exactly what he needed to go through to return to form.
What Djokovic has done well
His timing has progressed, which means he’s hitting cleaner shots. In golf terms, Djoker is not catching the ball fat, but rather he’s hitting pure. It may take a few games for him to warm up, but he does.
Another improvement is his return game. It’s the biggest strength he has and he's considered the best returner in the world. That skill is getting better and better each match. It’s why he’s been able to win back-to-match matches after being down both a set and a break. If you can break your opponent, that’s great, but a break is worthless if you can’t consolidate, and holding on to that break against the best returner in the world has proven difficult.
Lastly, his fitness has improved. Though it is still not at 100 percent, Djoker has proven that both his lungs and legs can hold in a best of three. Good news is that there are still a few events he can participate in before Roland Garros to prepare for the battle that is best-of-five match play.
What Djokovic needs to improve
Djokovic has been playing well but there is one area left to improve — his serving. Looking at his match stats, you’ll see that Djoker has been struggling with his second serves. In back-to-back matches against Djere and Kecmanovic, Novak has been 48 and 63 percent on second-serve points won. In both matches, including his match against Fokina, Djoker’s numbers were 41 and 45 percent in the first set, which is not a coincidence as to why he lost all three opening sets.
That number, however, improves as the match progresses jumping to 53 and 73 in the second set and 50 and 75 in the third.
Due to this being a common occurrence for now, one way to wager Djokovic in these lead up matches is by taking the over in total games, for matches to go three sets, or by betting his opponent to win the first set so long as he is playing someone who can be competitive on this surface, a player with a good return who can punish his lackluster second serve.
Improving his serving is important because once he faces good returners, he could fall into a hole and would need to climb out. Though fully capable, it’s adding stress to the match and to the body.
Can Djokovic win the French Open? Absolutely. He has an 81-15 record and two titles there. He seems to be finding his form now to be potentially peaking at the right time. Plus, the King of Clay, Rafa Nadal, has yet to return from injury. Is Djokovic worth a buy now? No. His +260 price is unlikely to change much from now until then and, as always, the draw is important.
The important thing is that Djokovic is back and the tour is better for it.