Like Williams, who at 40 is not playing on the tour and may be heading toward retirement, Djokovic faces snarling pressure to keep up with his peers. It is not getting any easier. On Sunday, he turned 35. His window is closing — the ability to call on match-to-match consistency narrows with each grinding season.
Consider all he has faced this year. Global anger over his determination to steer clear of vaccination. The hangover from the crushing loss in the final of the U.S. Open. The months when he looked like a meager facsimile of his old self on the tennis court.
After Australia, he was barred from playing in two big hardcourt tournaments, in Indian Wells and Miami, because the United States wisely required foreign visitors to be vaccinated to enter the country. Then came a stretch of choppy, angst-riddled play, which we had not seen from him in years. There were early-round defeats to the 123rd and 46th players in the world. Before adoring hometown fans, he struggled through the Serbia Open and crumbled in the finals. He fell in Madrid to the 19-year-old Spanish upstart Carlos Alcaraz.
Can Djokovic win his 21st at the French Open? There was little hint he would be up to the task until this month in Rome, at the last big tuneup before Roland Garros.
In Rome, it was all there again for Djokovic: lithe, deep and consistent returns, a pickpocket’s moxie during the tensest moments. Djokovic did not lose a set all tournament. In the final, where he defeated fourth-ranked Stefanos Tsitsipas, he took the opening stanza, 6-0.