After two matches of some promise, former champion Novak Djokovic faces his first major challenge at the French Open as he takes on Roberto Bautista Agut, the 13th seed from Spain. Djokovic, who is still looking to get back to his Slam-winning best after a period of poor form and injury problems, has had impressive moments so far this clay court season, but will be aware that he will need to find sustained quality to overcome Bautista Agut. Who will come out on top?
Djokovic and Bautista Agut have met seven times so far over the course of their careers and it is Djokovic who has dominated the rivalry, winning six of those matches. That included their first match which was contested in 2013 in Dubai with Djokovic starting strongly in a 6-1 7-6 win. He was more comfortable in their second clash, which came a year later again in Dubai and was won by Djokovic for the loss of just four games.
In 2015 Bautista Agut won his first set against Djokovic in their third match, but lost in four sets at the US Open 3-6 6-4 4-6 3-6. Djokovic then scored his most decisive win against the Spaniard, in 2016, in Madrid where he won 6-1 6-2. In a match played in the heaviest of conditions at Roland Garros that year, Djokovic triumphed in four sets despite losing the first. Bautista Agut then scored his first win, upsetting Djokovic in the Shanghai semifinals. But last year, Djokovic restored his authority, beating Bautista Agut 6-4 6-4 in Rome.
Path to the third round
Djokovic began his Roland Garros campaign against the Brazilian qualifier Rogerio Dutra da Silva. The Serb had to come from a break down in the opening two sets, but was ultimately comfortable in a 6-3 6-4 6-4 win. In the second round he faced another qualifier, Jaume Munar of Spain. The 21-year-old extended him to a tiebreak in the first set, but Djokovic raised his game to win it. One break in the second and third sets was then enough to send him into the third round a 7-6 6-4 6-4 winner.
Bautista Agut was in first round action against Denis Istomin, who famously upset Djokovic at the Australian Open last year. Bautista Agut made a good start, winning the first set 6-2, but then found himself in trouble as the Uzbek redlined his game to win the second and third sets. But Bautista Agut was able to tough out a 6-2 6-7 1-6 6-4 6-4 win. He was rather more comfortable in dispatching the Colombian Santiago Giraldo 6-4 7-5 6-3.
How do they match up?
Both men are very effective baseliners. It has been said of Bautista Agut, not unfairly, that he is a very natural athlete more than he is a natural tennis player, but the Spaniard has worked hard to improve his groundstrokes and serve and bring them up to the standard of his athleticism, which is impressive indeed. He has succeeded to some extent, and his forehand is a dangerous weapon that Djokovic will be aware of the need to negate.
Djokovic’s defensive skills were, when he was at his best, unparalleled and the Serbian has been moving well again lately. He is also striking his backhand down the line with real confidence, which is usually a good sign for the former world #1. He has looked a little flat in his previous two matches, but he has been able to raise his level when he has needed to. Against Bautista Agut, he will need to find that level and be able to sustain it, which is currently the big question mark in his game.
Djokovic and Bautista Agut have had some memorable clashes in the past, including at the French Open. Generally, however, the Spaniard has not matched up well with Djokovic, giving the Serbian too much rhythm without being able to hurt him enough. That problem is rather exacerbated on a clay court, which is not Bautista Agut’s favourite surface. This match should go Djokovic’s way, provided he is focused, after a four set battle.