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Novak Djokovic is still in the French Open – but only after a drawn-out struggle in four sets on Wednesday night against Pablo Carreño Busta, the Spaniard who cashed in at the US Open when the world No 1 was disqualified for striking a line official with a spare ball. It was not a joyous reunion.
A month after their shared New York drama, Carreño Busta had notions of winning on his own merits after taking the first set of the second quarter-final on day 11, but Djokovic ignored nagging pain in his upper left arm and his neck as he cobbled together a 4-6, 6-2, 6-3, 6-4 win in 3hr 10min under the lights on Court Philippe Chatrier. He has two days to recover before playing Stefanos Tsitsipas on Friday, and he will need every waking hour of them.
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If the 2016 champion is to win the title again he has to beat injury, an in-form Tsitsipas and, probably, the 12-time champion, Rafael Nadal, who plays Diego Schwartzman in the other semi-final. It is the sort of mountain Djokovic loves climbing, but the question remains: is he fit and strong enough to reach the summit?
Djokovic was cleared to play in Rome, where he beat Schwartzman in the final, and in Paris after testing positive for coronavirus on his Balkans exhibition tour earlier in the summer – but he looked a physical mess in the first set. Sweating and anxious, he grimaced, tugged at his arm and bandaged neck and tried to bang life into his upper legs with his racket as his opponent waited for his chances.
The tournament physio massaged Djokovic’s arm during the break and the player told him: “It feels better now.” Yet he did not look remotely comfortable, even when he got his serve working and levelled at a set apiece. The trainer returned between the third and fourth games, and it seemed to lift Djokovic’s spirits. Just when he looked as if he was slipping into a confused state again, he bounced back to level at a set apiece.
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He broke early in the third, overcame a blip when Carreño Busta broke back for 2-3, then hit hard again to go a set up. But he looked far from commanding. Carreño Busta dug his heels into the Roland Garros clay in the fourth, and Djokovic had to fight for every point. Carreño Busta chose a woeful option to hand him the break for 3-4, Djokovic saved break point to hold through deuce