At the start of this French Open, Novak Djokovic was asked if he had ever played the perfect match. There is no such thing, he replied, although he had come close – and, indeed, there were moments in his 6-0, 6-3, 6-2 thrashing of Daniel Elahi Galán on Saturday when he resembled Superman on holidays.
The world No 1, unbeaten in 34 completed matches this year, was frighteningly good in beating the Colombian “lucky loser” to cruise into the fourth round for the 11th year in a row, a record equalled only by Rafael Nadal and the absent Roger Federer.
“I was happy the way I played, pretty solid tennis,” Djokovic said courtside, understating the obvious. Galán said: “You watch him on TV and it seems like he’s not playing that fast. But today it was like a rocket, every forehand. I was not able even to react.”
For long stretches Djokovic toyed with the world No 153, indulging himself again in his latest point-winner, the side-spun drop-shot, serving like Pete Sampras and changing direction from the back of the court as if he were an air traffic controller. He was cat-like at the net and smashed with confidence.
For most of the two hours and seven minutes it lasted (thanks to Galán’s refusal to fold), he was better, even, than Nadal in any of the Spaniard’s three quick wins on the other side of the draw in the first week. It will take some seriously good tennis to stop them both appearing in the final next Sunday.
The early evening carnage was interrupted to draw the new roof across Court Philippe Chatrier three games into the second set – just after Galán slipped awkwardly on the wet clay behind his baseline – and a good 15 minutes after Djokovic had asked the chair umpire to do so. It was the only contentious moment in a match that more closely resembled an exhibition.
When Galán – who looked good taking out Cam Norrie in five sets in the first round – hit a superb crosscourt forehand to win his first game after 43 minutes, the scattered audience in the echoing stadium gave the 24-year-old an almighty and ironic cheer. Djokovic smiled. He could afford to. He is playing tennis from Krypton. Galán leaves Paris with €126,000 (£111,000) and the memory of a handful of dazzling counterpunches, but a few psychic bruises, too.
Djokovic has given up just 15 games in three matches and only Nadal, with 96 wins here, has more than his 71 career victories – one ahead now of Federer. This is mind-numbing dominance. But change is not far away.
Roland Garros has turned into a minefield for the dwindling contingent of seeds, as rank outsiders refuse to be awed. Five players in both singles draws have reached the middle weekend having never previously won a match at a slam, confirming the suspicion the game is moving into a new era.
One of the unheralded upstarts, Daniel Altmaier, thinks he knows why. The latest favourite to fall in the men’s draw was the seventh seed, Matteo Berrettini, who could not tame the killer backhand of the 22-year-old German, playing in only his sixth Tour-level match after creeping inside the top 200 for the first time a month ago.
Altmaier, plagued by injuries in his young career, said after his impressive 6-2, 7-6 (5), 6-4 win over the Italian: “Tennis is [undergoing] a big change. I was feeling this already on the Challenger Tour, even the Futures Tour. Literally everyone can beat everyone at the moment. Physically, everybody is getting stronger. Tennis-wise, players are playing smarter, more disciplined. You can see this at the recent grand slams.”
For two and a quarter hours Chatrier was Daniel’s den as he began day seven in the same fashion that Hugo Gaston, the unknown 20-year-old Toulouse left-hander, had wound up day six by dumping the triple-slam champion Stan Wawrinka out of a tournament he had won five years ago.
Next for Altmaier is the 17th seed, Pablo Carreño Busta, who benefited from Djokovic’s disqualification at Flushing Meadows and on Saturday beat his Spanish compatriot Roberto Bautista Agut 6-4, 6-3, 5-7, 6-4.
Sofia Kenin, the Australian Open champion known to her family as Sonia, was not among the names to fall, and dismissed the unseeded Romanian Irina Bara in 72 minutes, 6-2, 6-0. Ons Jabeur, who hits the ball with delightful freedom, became the first Arab woman to reach the fourth round of a major when she beat the eighth seed, Aryna Sabalenka, 7-6 (7), 2-6, 6-3 in just over two hours.
Jamie Murray and Neal Skupski reached the quarter-finals of the doubles by beating Marcel Granollers and Horacio Zeballos 6-3, 4-6, 6-4, and remain on course for a final that could feature three British players after Joe Salisbury and his American playing partner, Rajeev Ram, defeated Jérémy Chardy and Fabrice Martin 6-3, 6-2 in the top half of the draw.