Novak Djokovic could find himself forced to reprise the villain role when he takes on Gael Monfils in Cincinnati. The world number 2 was warmly welcomed by the crowd after returning to the United States for the first time in two years. But against massive fan-favorite Monfils, it won’t be a surprise if the crown pulls against him this time around.
Djokovic is competing in America for the first time since the 2021 US Open. The 36-year-old, unopposed, had been unable to enter the country due to travel restrictions related to the Covid vaccine, but fans of the Cincinnati Open showed how happy they were to have him back.
The 23-time Grand Slam champion filled the stands for his practice matches and received huge cheers even in their doubles match on Tuesday, partnered with Nikola Cacic before losing to Jamie Murray and Michael Venus. Djokovic also felt the love during his singles match on Wednesday, advancing when Alejandro Davidovich Fokina retired after losing 6-4.
But the Serbian will struggle to win over fans in his round of 16 as he takes on charismatic Frenchman Monfils, who is continuing his comeback from foot and wrist injuries. Djokovic has often faced hostility from crowds during his career but has enjoyed a positive reception so far this week.
However, that could all change when he steps onto the pitch against Monfils, as the former world No.6 still finds himself receiving support from entire stadiums wherever he goes. And it was the same story on Wednesday when the world number 211 beat Alex de Minaur on Court 4.
While Monfils has always been a fan favourite, appreciation for him has only grown since he started battling injuries in recent years and seeing him healthy on the pitch is becoming something of a rarity. . There were already concerns in his opener against Cameron Norrie when he injured his knee and called the physio to court.
The 11-time title winner was able to regroup and upset the 13th seed 3-6 6-4 6-3 with the crowd pushing him every step of the way. When Djokovic takes on his former rival for the 19th time on Thursday night, he could find himself up against two opponents – Monfils and the spectators.
But the second seed is well aware of the effect Monfils has on tennis fans and thinks he fully deserves it. “He’s an amazing guy. Someone I really respect and like as a person a lot,” Djokovic said ahead of their match.
“He brings so much joy to the fans, so much entertainment. One of the most charismatic players we’ve had in the last two decades on the circuit. It’s great to see him back after several years of battling injuries. He still plays well. He is a year older than me. Everyone talks about my age, but him! He’s doing really well, so it’s going to be a veteran duel tomorrow, I guess.