The deceptively convivial setting of the Monte Carlo Country Club was an ochre‑tinged graveyard by the sea for Novak Djokovic 12 months ago when the young Czech Jiri Vesely stunned the Serb near the apex of his greatness. It was no palace of delights on Tuesday when Djokovic laboured again, this time for three sets over two and a half hours to squeeze past Gilles Simon into the third round of a tournament he won in 2012 and 2015, when he was indisputably the best player in the world.
He is not that now. Probably, the absent Roger Federer could claim the uneasy crown after a phenomenal revival in 2017. Ultimately, Djokovic was the best player on Court Rainier III when, returning to the Tour after a month away to heal a sore elbow, he saved the match twice in the third set before outlasting the elegant French stroke-maker 6-3, 3-6, 7-5.
Djokovic must be at least mildly concerned about retaining his French Open title next month and he will take more than a casual interest in the fortunes of the man he beat in four sets to win that title, Andy Murray, when the world No1 makes his own mini-comeback on Wednesday, against the 33-year-old Gilles Müller.
“I’ve been feeling better every day,” Murray said on Tuesday of his five-week recovery from the illness and injury that has blighted the early months of his reign. “It’s not going to be easy, first tournament back after a while.”
Djokovic, looking properly drained, echoed that sentiment. “It was a very difficult match with many changes of momentum,” he said. “It was very tiring for me, first clay match of the season.”
Luckless at the worst possible moment after coming so close to the upset, Simon hit his final shot long with a busted string.
Kyle Edmund is in a relaxed frame of mind before one of the biggest tests of his young career – against the clay maestro Rafael Nadal on Wednesday afternoon – after a convincing win against Dan Evans in two sets of contrasting virtues on Monday. He hit hard and fast through his compatriot’s defence but was at a loss to explain an embarrassing meltdown against a welter of clever lobs.
“Definitely would have been my worst [performances handling the high ball],” he said. “Missed so many. But it just happens.”
Edmund has a quiet calm about him, which encourages confidence in his development and self-belief. As he remarked: “You get familiar with your surroundings. There’s also a point where you can’t just keep looking at who they are. They’re players on the other side of the net.”
This one on the other side of the net is going for La Décima, an unprecedented 10th title at the same tournament. Nadal is similarly poised to make history in Barcelona and at Roland Garros. Breaking the Spaniard’s serve or stretching him in rallies would constitute progress for Edmund, after a sub-par performance for Great Britain in the Davis Cup quarter-final against France in Rouen last weekend.
Johanna Konta has decided to add Stuttgart to her schedule, after winning in Miami and withdrawing from Charleston to guard a minor shoulder injury. A spokesperson said on Tuesday, “She wants to make sure she’s as ready as possible for Roland Garros, which means plenty of matches on the clay.” She has a one-in-20 chance of playing Maria Sharapova first up in the Russian’s controversial comeback tournament.