World No 1 Novak Djokovic has admitted that plenty of improvements will be needed in order to stand any chance of taking the French Open title from hot favourite and defending champion Rafael Nadal later this year. Djokovic achieved the first Grand Slam triumph of the new season with victory at the Australian Open, strolling to the trophy despite struggling with a troublesome muscle injury for the vast majority of the tournament.
However, his preparations for the next major at Roland Garros took a hit on Saturday as he was knocked out of the Serbia Open in his home town of Belgrade.
Djokovic would have been hoping for another routine victory against Aslan Karatsev in a repeat of his semi-final in Melbourne, but failed to live up to expectations this time around, succumbing to a narrow 7-5 4-6 6-4 defeat.
The Serb has made it clear on a number of previous occasions that his current aim is to close the gap to Nadal and Roger Federer, who have both won 20 Grand Slam titles.
Djokovic currently sits two adrift on 18 after his stellar campaign in Australia, but the upcoming French Open will provide a golden opportunity to reduce the deficit even further ahead of Wimbledon, which is set to get underway at the end of June.
Nadal, who has gained a formidable reputation as the king of clay, is widely expected to seal yet another title at Roland Garros but his frustrated rival has stressed that he will be looking to put Saturday’s disappointment behind him in order to challenge the Spaniard’s dominance.
“Hats off to Karatsev, he was bold and deserved to win,” Djokovic told a virtual press conference.
“I will probably not be able to recollect all the memorable rallies in this match because I lost. I am not happy with my performance, I put up a fight but he delivered great shots every time he needed to.
“I was unlucky at times, it all came down to one or two shots but I had too many ups and downs throughout the match.
“Roland Garros is the main goal, but I need to play better if I’m thinking about doing something there. I have a lot of work ahead of me.”
Saturday’s result marked another surprise defeat for Djokovic after he was downed by British No 1 Dan Evans at the Monte-Carlo Masters earlier this month.
Dissecting his performance against Karatsev, Djokovic admitted that his opposite number was the better man on the day, but suggested that there were still plenty of positives to take from the defeat as he looks to optimise his game on clay in preparation for the French Open.
“From my side, I played on quite a low level, in my opinion,” added Djokovic.
“[I had] some flashes of good quality tennis, I was fighting. That is a positive. I was really trying all the way [and] the crowd was great.
“They carried me and tried to lift me up, all the way to the end. Because of them, I think I won the second set.
“Unfortunately in the third, he was just the better player in the decisive moments. I had my chances, but that is sport.”
The draw for this year’s French Open will be made shortly ahead of the tournament, which is expected to begin on May 30 after it was pushed back as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic.