Novak’s Middle of the Night Magic

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Bill Simons and Vinay Venkatesh 

Paris 

They call Lorenzo Musetti “the Muse.”

Well, muse on this.

Way past 1:00 AM, the 22-year-old Italian went up two sets to one on the GOAT, Novak Djokovic, sending shock waves through the tennis universe. Fans deep in the Norwegian woods, in Kansas City backyards and on sailboats off of Tonga were riveted. All seemed lost.

After all, if ever there’s been a week which has shouted that the times are changing in tennis, it’s been this week. Late last Sunday afternoon, the 27-year-old German, Alexander Zverev, dethroned the king of clay, Senor Nadal. 

Saturday night it seemed that it might be a fleet, athletic Italian’s turn to bring down another icon, and emphatically declare that a new generation has arrived. 

Seemingly, Djokovic, who fell to Jannik Sinner at the Australian Open, would fail to crack the Italian code for the second straight Slam. For the first time since 2005, it seemed possible that none of the Big 3 would reach the fourth round of the French Open.

Yes, this match inexplicably started at 10:40 PM. Yes, at the 2021 French Open, Musetti had a huge lead over Nole, then withered in the fifth set and retired. Yes, Lorenzo had lost to Novak early in this year on Monte Carlo’s clay.

But tonight, after dropping the first set, Musetti, who’d recently reached the finals of two challengers and is ranked  No. 30, played inspired, top-ten-like ball, running free, serving brilliantly, mixing up his shots – especially with his backhand slices. Fearless and inspired, he gave Nole no rhythm. In the zone, playing far beyond expectations, Lorenzo grabbed a two sets to one lead.

Nole had no answers. At a loss, he was about to lose his No. 1 ranking. Time and again he shamelessly barked at his Friends’ Box and doubled over. 

Exhausted and more than frustrated, he was showing his age (37). And, as been the case for virtually all of this troubled season, Novak was playing distinctly un-Nole-like tennis. The Serb, who hasn’t won a single title this year, kick-started a frenzy of speculation when the other day he confided that he was wrestling with problems that were deeply hidden in his own private Pandora’s box.

But, hold on.

These days, there is one tennis rule that must be honored. Never underestimate the guy who emerged from those mountains in the Serbian outback to reach virtually every summit in tennis.

So, almost on cue, in the fourth set the man of steel reached within, drew on his irrepressible will and launched one of his most memorable counterattacks. His defense suddenly seemed seamless. He upgraded his serve. 

The old man who’d whined to the chair umpire, OMG it’s 1:00 AM, was now in form at 2:30 AM and howling, as he somehow gained ascendance.

As the ecstatic crowd roared and Roland Garros’ loudspeakers blared the Queen’s anthem, “We Are the Champions of the World,” Novak showed why he’s such a flawless game manager and airtight problem solver.

After each grueling point was played, Djokovic seemed totally spent. But during play he found a new lease on life. His defense was inspired. He stroked brilliant cross-court flicks. His accuracy astounded. His ‘tude was clear: “I shall not be denied.” 

Like a demon, he sprinted to drop shots and ripped backhands down the line as he scored a mind-boggling 7-5, 6-7 (6), 2-6, 6-3, 6-0 win in 4:30 that ended at 3:04 AM. It was the latest French Open finish in history. 

Roland Garros emcee Alex Corretja told the man who many consider to be the world’s greatest sportsman, “Through your soul, through your heart, you were unbelievable.”

Speaking in French, Nole told the middle-of-the-night crowd, “At first, Lorenzo was impenetrable. There were no solutions and so many errors. The difference was the crowd – and that’s why I’m speaking in French. 

“It’s incredible that you stayed, it’s 3am. There are still kids who should be sleeping. This might be my best match here with this crowd. Who can sleep now? It’s impossible with adrenaline. If you’re having a party, I’ll come! Allez!”

So, once again, Nole will party on. And once again he showed us that you can never dismiss the greatness of this athletic wonder who’s amazed us for so many years. 

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