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By Chris Oddo | @TheFanChild | Friday, April 21, 2023

To anyone who watched Novak Djokovic’s two matches at Banja Luka this week, it’s clear that the 22-time Grand Slam champion is operating well below his peak level. Today’s loss to compatriot Dusan Lajovic was proof of that, but it doesn’t mean that the Serb is in big trouble when it comes to hitting his peak at Roland-Garros.

Tennis Express

There were actually some good signs this week.

First, Djokovic took off the compression sleeve that he was wearing to protect his elbow and said that he feels good in that regard. Second, he got two matches under his belt. Whether they were up to snuff by his lofty standards or not, there is real value in that for the World No.1.

He is disappointed in his play, but is experienced and knows that time is on his side. There are five weeks until Roland-Garros starts, and two Masters 1000 events at Madrid and Rome in between. He’ll have time to put the pieces together.

“I had my chances, but I didn’t take them,” he said of his effort on Friday in Banja Luka, according to Tennis Majors. “I played quite passively, with many mistakes and that resulted in the defeat.

“I was way below my desired level. I can’t win against opponents who are so solid on this surface with this game. I didn’t even feel good physically on the court: I felt slow, with sluggish legs; I missed a lot of balls and was totally out of [position]. At times I played well, but well below my level.”

It’s not ideal, but it is fairly normal to see Djokovic struggle in his first few outings on clay. In the past we’ve seen him find his game at Rome and carry that form over to Roland-Garros. Barring any unforeseen injuries, why should we suspect that this season would be any different?

With Nadal struggling to get fit, Djokovic knows he has a good opportunity to claim a third title in Paris, and a 23rd major. It’s reasonable to think he was playing it safe in Banja Luka, being careful not to hit out too much so that his elbow continues to recover. Or that he simply hasn’t gained comfort timing the ball and his footwork on the clay.

But let’s not make the mistake of thinking that he isn’t one of the best clay-court players of his generation and the man to beat at Roland-Garros if Nadal isn't at full fitness.