Novak Djokovic: What happened the last time the Serb played the week before the French Open?

Ewan West
Novak Djokovic Belgrade Open champion
Novak Djokovic celebrates winning the 2021 Belgrade Open

Novak Djokovic’s decision to take a wildcard to play the Geneva Open this week has raised a few eyebrows, with the French Open just a few days away. 

The legendary Serb rarely chooses to play a tournament in the week before a Grand Slam given the demands of the seven-match, best-of-five set format at Majors. This is an approach followed by the majority of top players.

The world No 1 has had a difficult 2024 campaign to date, though, and played just six matches on clay this year prior to Geneva. The tennis icon reached the semi-finals at the Monte Carlo Masters and the third round at the Italian Open in his two previous clay events.

Djokovic outlined his need to play more matches before Roland Garros ahead of his appearance at the ATP 250 tournament in Geneva.

“The reason why I chose to come and play I because I feel like at this moment there is no better practice for me than match play,” he said.

“I feel like I need more matches. Even if it’s one match, two matches, three-four, hopefully, it’s good for me because that’s the way for me to try to find that kind of form that I need for Roland Garros.”

Djokovic defeated Yannick Hanfmann 6-3, 6-3 in his opening match in Geneva — on his 37th birthday. The 2024 French Open will get underway on Sunday May 26, the day after the Geneva Open final.

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While it may not be his usual method, this is not the first time the 24-time Grand Slam champion has played the week before Roland Garros.

Here is a look back at what happened the last time Djokovic did this.

Djokovic played the Belgrade Open ahead of the 2021 French Open

In 2021, Djokovic competed at the Belgrade Open — an ATP 250 clay-court tournament — the week prior to Roland Garros.

That season, the Serbian had already played three events on clay: the Monte Carlo Masters; the Serbia Open (a separate ATP 250 in Belgrade); and the Italian Open.

Djokovic was upset by Dan Evans in the third round in Monte Carlo, before he fell to a semi-final defeat to Aslan Karatsev at the Serbia Open the following week.

The Serbian then skipped the ATP Masters 1000 event in Madrid, as he has in the last two years, before returning in Rome, where he lost to Rafael Nadal in the final.

While there is now only one week between the Italian Open and the French Open, there was still a two-week gap in the 2021 calendar. This allowed Djokovic a week of rest, before he played a second tournament in as many months in his home city.

In Belgrade, Djokovic defeated Mats Moraing 6–2, 7–6(7–4) in the second round after receiving a first round bye as the top seed. He then crushed Federico Coria 6–1, 6–0 in the quarter-finals, before overcoming Andrej Marin 6–1, 4–6, 6–0 in the last four.

In the final, Djokovic saw off Alex Molcan 6–4, 6–3 to secure a triumph on home soil and claim his second title of the season to add to his Australian Open victory.

This proved to be an effective week of preparation for Djokovic’s 2021 French Open campaign, which he started in dominant fashion. He dismantled Tennys Sandgren, Pablo Cuevas and Ricardas Berankis in the first three rounds, losing no more than four games in a set.

In the fourth round at Roland Garros, Djokovic faced his first test as he fell two sets behind against Lorenzo Musetti. He responded emphatically and prevailed 6–7(7–9), 6–7(2–7), 6–1, 6–0, 4–0 ret. against the young Italian.

Djokovic then battled past the then-world No 9 Matteo Berrettini 6–3, 6–2, 6–7(5–7), 7–5 in a tough quarter-final clash to set up a last four showdown with Nadal.

The Serbian produced arguably one of his finest ever performances to triumph 3–6, 6–3, 7–6(7–4), 6–2 against Nadal in a classic semi-final encounter lasting four hours and 11 minutes. An epic third set proved crucial as Djokovic handed the ‘King of Clay’ just his third French Open loss.

In the championship match, Djokovic faced another big challenge as he lost the opening two sets against an inspired Stefanos Tsitsipas.

The great man survived again, though, as he held off the Greek to win 6–7(6–8), 2–6, 6–3, 6–2, 6–4 to complete a memorable run and clinch his second Roland Garros crown. Djokovic is the only player to come back from two sets to love down in two matches en route to winning a Grand Slam title in the Open Era.

The world No 1 will be hoping history repeats itself this year.

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