PARIS (AP) — Ignore the straight-set score: Novak Djokovic was not quite at his impervious best in the first round of the French Open on Tuesday night, and his 6-4, 7-6 (3), 6-4 win over Pierre-Hugues Herbert might not have been enough to alter the defending champion’s “low expectations” at this tournament.

It’s been a rougher-than-usual season so far for Djokovic, and while there were some signs of breaking out of his 2024 funk during the course of the contest at Court Philippe Chatrier, he still has room for improvement as he attempts to become the first player in tennis history to claim 25 Grand Slam singles trophies.

Djokovic is a three-time title winner at Roland Garros who needs to return to the final to retain his No. 1 ranking. But he arrived in Paris without having done that at any tournament this year. He is 0-3 in semifinals — including a loss last week at the lower-tier Geneva Open on red clay — and this victory across 2 1/2 hours only served to make his overall record 15-6.

So when he spoke at a news conference on Sunday, Djokovic described his mindset heading into the French Open this way: “Low expectations and high hopes.” Then he pointed out, “Anything but a title, for me, is not satisfactory,” which is understandable given his remarkable resume.

Perhaps that’s why Djokovic seemed a bit edgy at moments against Herbert, a 33-year-old Frenchman who owns a career Grand Slam in doubles but never has been past the third round at any major in singles and is currently ranked 142nd.

The home crowd tried to push Herbert, repeatedly calling out his name, even imploring him in English at one point by chanting, “Let’s go, Pierre-Hugues! Let’s go!” They jeered Djokovic late in the third set when he went to the sideline to towel after he slipped, stumbled and tumbled onto the clay chasing a ball.

A day after sitting in the Chatrier stands to watch rival Rafael Nadal’s first-round loss against Alexander Zverev, Djokovic was competing in the chill of a 60-degree evening (15 Celsius), and he did not always look happy. He rolled his head back after one miss while making four groundstroke mistakes to get broken early in the second set. He repeatedly gestured to the ballkids to go ahead and give him the balls already so he could prepare to serve.

Although Herbert’s game did not demand a maximum expenditure of energy from Djokovic, there certainly was enough to keep things interesting. And by the end, the winner totals were 37 for Herbert, 29 for Djokovic.

There were some strokes of brilliance from Djokovic, to be sure, and he covered the court well when sprinting after the drop shots Herbert kept trying. The highlight for Djokovic was probably the closed-stance sliding backhand winner that earned him a match point — which was converted when Herbert double-faulted to end it.

Still, the statistic that truly mattered was the one that shows Djokovic is now 69-0 in opening matches at Slam events since starting his career with a 3-2 mark in first-rounders.

Djokovic’s second-round opponent will be 63rd-ranked Roberto Carballés Baena of Spain.

The first round closed on a day during which rain delayed play for several hours early in the day on all but the two principal courts, which are outfitted with retractable roofs.

Other winners Tuesday included the man Djokovic beat in last year’s French Open final, Casper Ruud, and past major champions Aryna Sabalenka and Elena Rybakina.

Ruud, who also was the runner-up to Nadal in Paris in 2022 and leads the ATP with 36 wins in 2024, beat Felipe Meligeni Alves 6-3, 6-4, 6-3.

Two-time Australian Open champion Aryna Sabalenka overpowered Erika Andreeva 6-1, 6-2, and 2022 Wimbledon winner Elena Rybakina beat Greet Minnen 6-2, 6-3.

Sabalenka is trying to become the first woman since Serena Williams in 2015 to win the Australian Open and Roland Garros in the same season and get halfway to a calendar-year Grand Slam.

Associated Press Writer Tom Nouvian contributed to this report. Source: post

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