PARIS — For two sets and more than two hours at the French Open on Monday, Novak Djokovic found himself being outplayed by a 19-year-old opponent making his Grand Slam debut.
And yet, to hear Djokovic tell it afterward, he had the kid right where he wanted him.
After dropping a pair of tiebreakers to begin the fourth-round match, Djokovic suddenly went from a big deficit to his best tennis. He grabbed 13 games in a row in a dominant display before Lorenzo Musetti stopped playing because of lower back pain and cramps while trailing in the fifth set.
The result officially goes into the books as a retirement. The score when Musetti quit showed Djokovic ahead 6-7 (7), 6-7 (2), 6-1, 6-0, 4-0.
“I like to play young guys in best-of-five, because I feel even if they are leading a set or two sets to love, as it was the case today, I still like my chances,” said the top-seeded Djokovic, who claimed 19 consecutive points in one stretch once he got going, “because I feel like I’m physically fit and I know how to wear my opponent down.”
Musetti, a talented Italian so good at the outset with his one-handed backhand and tremendous touch, is hardly used to this best-of-five-set format at the majors and he took a medical timeout after the fourth.
“It didn’t make sense to keep playing. I couldn’t win any points or stay in the rallies. It was hard for me to move,” Musetti said. “I was at my limit.”
The 34-year-old Djokovic wound up 9 for 9 on his break-point chances and with a 53-30 edge in winners.
How shocking was it just to see Musetti take the opening pair of sets against Djokovic, who is seeking his second French Open championship and 19th Grand Slam trophy overall?
“Even for me,” Musetti acknowledged afterward, “it was a little surprising.”
The top-seeded Djokovic never had been beaten at Roland Garros by someone ranked as low as the No. 76 Musetti. Djokovic’s only previous loss against a teen at the French Open came back in 2006 against a guy named Rafael Nadal. And Djokovic entered the day 14-0 in the fourth round at the place.
Plus, consider Djokovic’s recent form: He was 10-0 in Grand Slam matches in 2021 and hadn’t ceded more than four games in any set in Paris – let alone an entire set – while dropping a total of just 23 games until Monday.
Eventually, Djokovic earned his fifth career comeback from two sets down by limiting his mistakes and making Musetti look like what he is: Someone with plenty of promise but not much experience.
Djokovic reached his record 15th quarterfinal in Paris and 49th major quarterfinal in all. It will come against another Italian, No. 9 seed Matteo Berrettini, who advanced without needing to swing his racket once Monday.
That’s because the man Berrettini was supposed to face in the fourth round, 20-time Grand Slam champion Roger Federer, withdrew in order to let his surgically repaired right knee and the rest of his 39-year-old body rest with an eye on Wimbledon this month.
In other fourth-round men’s action on the top half of the draw, No. 10 seed Diego Schwartzman saved seven set points in the opening set on the way to eliminating Jan-Lennard Struff 7-6 (9), 6-4, 7-5. Schwartzman, a semifinalist at Roland Garros in 2020, next will face 13-time champion Nadal or No. 18 Jannik Sinner – who, like Musetti, is an Italian who is 19.
In women’s play, 17-year-old American Coco Gauff became the youngest player since 2006 to reach the women’s quarterfinals at any Grand Slam tournament by overwhelming No. 25 seed Ons Jabeur 6-3, 6-1 in under an hour.
Gauff now meets Barbora Krejcikova, who reached her first major quarterfinal with a 6-2, 6-0 victory over Sloane Stephens, the 2017 U.S. Open champion and 2018 French Open runner-up.
Maria Sakkari, who is seeded 17th, beat No. 4 Sofia Kenin, last year’s runner-up, 6-1, 6-3. Sakkari’s quarterfinal opponent will be 2020 champion Iga Swiatek or Marta Kostyuk.
Gauff, Krejcikova and Sakkari are three of the six first-time Grand Slam quarterfinalists left in the women’s bracket.
On an afternoon that began with the sun shining, before clouds intervened, Djokovic’s two-handed backhand, his best shot, was off. Way off.
By the second game of the third set, he already had accumulated two dozen unforced errors off that wing alone.
And while Djokovic is normally adept at tiebreakers – he made no errors at all in the three tiebreakers of his 2019 Wimbledon final win against Federer – Musetti was on-target and so good in those that high-pressure, high-stakes environment. Musetti is now 10-0 in tour-level tiebreakers for his nascent career.
After that, though, Djokovic took over.
“I never thought I had it won. Absolutely not,” Musetti said. “Against a champion like Djokovic, you truly only have a victory when he shakes your hand at the end.”