Novak Djokovic dropped just one game last time he faced Pablo Carreno Busta at the Monte-Carlo Rolex Masters – can Carreno Busta make more of a match of it on Thursday?
After his narrow escape against Gilles Simon, Novak Djokovic continues his campaign for a third Monte-Carlo Rolex Masters title as he takes on Pablo Carreno Busta in the third round on Thursday.
As opening statements for the clay-court season go, Djokovic might have wished to record a victory that was a little more emphatic. With his best tennis AWOL for most of the past year, and with early exits at the Australian Open, Acapulco and Indian Wells blemishing his 2017 record, Djokovic surely would have wanted to draw a line under the first three months of the season – including the elbow injury that took him out of the Miami Masters – and start his build-up to his French Open title defense with a straightforward win in Monte Carlo.
Instead, he got off to a stuttering start against Gilles Simon – a player he has sometimes struggled with, but almost never lost to – on Tuesday in Monte Carlo, leading comfortably before losing his way and ending up in a three-set dogfight with the resilient Simon, who actually served for the match before Djokovic broke back and eventually closed out a 6-3, 3-6, 7-5 win in just over two and a half hours.
‘I thought I played a solid tennis for first set and a half,’ Djokovic said. ‘I was 6-3, 2-1 up, playing just enough to keep going. I felt like I had the control of the match. Then the match turned around. I started making some unforced errors. He made less unforced errors.
‘Usually he doesn't do too many. But he just found a way to take away angles from me. I couldn't maybe play as I have for the first 45 minutes of the match. I started to take more risk because of his game. I made more errors, unfortunately. We got ourselves in a third set.
‘After that, obviously, it was a very close battle that could have ended differently, and would be, of course, deserved if he would have won the match. He was two, three points away from winning it. I got myself out of that tricky situation. That's probably the most positive thing I take from today.’
A steelier game from Simon when trying to serve out the match, and Djokovic – who rather gave up the break with a big unforced volley error, and did little to recover it – would be out of the Monte-Carlo Rolex Masters already. But he survived, and enjoyed a rest day on Wednesday to prepare for Thursday’s third-round clash against Pablo Carreno Busta at the Monte-Carlo Rolex Masters.
Djokovic and Carreno Busta played for the first and so far only time three years ago at the Monte-Carlo Rolex Masters, when Djokovic demolished the Spanish player – a lucky loser – 6-0, 6-1.
Carreno Busta will be hoping to make Thursday’s match considerably more competitive. With Spanish men’s tennis facing a crisis as the golden generation led by Rafael Nadal get older and not a lot of new players come along to replace them, Carreno Busta has been hyped for a long time as the brightest hope for the future – and for a long time, he didn’t seem to be doing very much to justify that hype.
That changed in 2016, when Carreno Busta, who is now 25, finally seemed to grow into life on the tour. Carreno Busta, who had only briefly broken into the top 50 before 2016, recorded a 41-26 season which included runner-up finishes on clay to Pablo Cuevas in Sao Paulo and Nicolas Almagro in Estoril and titles on hard courts at Winston-Salem, where he beat Roberto Bautista Agut in the final, and Moscow where he beat Fabio Fognini. Carreno Busta also made the semifinals of Los Cabos and the third round of the US Open, but made little impression on the Masters 1000 Series events, going 4-7 at that level.
Obviously Carreno Busta would very much like to change that in 2017, and indeed he already has. Up to world no. 31 by the end of 2016, Carreno Busta comes into the Monte-Carlo Rolex Masters ranked world no. 19. After a decent but not spectacular start to the season – he made the third round of the Australian Open, but lost to world no. 223 Franko Skugor during Davis Cup, a fairly tragic five-set defeat – Carreno Busta made his biggest career final at the 500-level Rio Open, finishing runner-up to Dominic Thiem, and was a semifinalist in Sao Paulo. Then came Indian Wells, where Carreno Busta made a surprise run to the semifinals – partly as the result of a soft draw, and helped by a walkover from Bautista Agut, but still a great run which, although ended by Stan Wawrinka in straight sets, propelled Carreno Busta into the top 20 for the first time.
Carreno Busta didn’t come into Monte Carlo on great form, losing his next two matches to Federico Delbonis in Miami and to Viktor Troicki in Davis Cup, but he won a very tough match against Fabio Fognini 7-6(0), 6-7(4), 6-3 in the first round and was solid again against Karen Khachanov on Wednesday, winning 6-4, 6-4 to set up Thursday’s clash with Djokovic.
Given the one game Carreno Busta managed to scrape the last time the two met, it’s hard to feel too optimistic about the Spanish player’s chances in this one. Carreno Busta is a much improved and more confident player than he was three years ago, but he’s still never beaten a top-10 player in 15 attempts and looks unlikely to start now, no matter what Djokovic himself is going through.
The two-time champion looks set to book his place in the Monte-Carlo Rolex Masters quarterfinals once again.
Djokovic vs Carreno Busta is scheduled on Court Rainer III on Thursday at 4pm local/3pm BST