Thursday, June 13

Novak Djokovic’s knee injury and French Open withdrawal: What it means

This article has been updated on Thursday June 6, to reflect confirmation of Novak Djkovic’s knee surgery following the French Open.

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The news that Novak Djokovic has withdrawn from the French Open with a torn meniscus was one of those moments at Roland Garros where the gasps were audible.

It wasn’t a huge shock given Djokovic said he was unsure if he would play his quarterfinal after picking up the injury in a fourth-round win over Francisco Cerundolo. Still, to lose the world No. 1 and defending champion in this manner is huge.

But what are the implications of Djokovic’s withdrawal — for him, the event, and the sport in general?


What it means for Novak Djokovic

What is Djokovic’s injury?

Djokovic withdrew from the French Open on Tuesday with a tear in the medial meniscus of his right knee. The meniscus is a semicircle of cartilage that sits on the inside half of the knee joint. It’s an extremely common injury among active adults, especially middle-aged men, and can bring varying amounts of pain.

In tennis players, especially over a long playing career, it’s more likely that any tear will be a slow degeneration that gets aggravated rather than a sudden, acute tear. Roger Federer and Jo-Wilfried Tsonga are among the players who have had surgery on a torn meniscus in the last few years while in their mid-30s, even if the former was a freak injury while running the bath for his kids.


Djokovic played through the injury against Francisco Cerundolo (Bertrand Guay / AFP via Getty Images)

American No. 1 Taylor Fritz played at Wimbledon 23 days after an operation on a meniscus injury, but that was treated with a debridement, which trims the damaged section of the meniscus. If Djokovic’s injury is too severe for that, a full repair using stitches will be required, which extends the recovery time into months.

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What are Djokovic and his team saying about his injury?

Thursday 6 June, Djokovic confirmed that he had had surgery on the meniscus tear in Paris. People close to Djokovic are as yet unable to comment on the timeline for his recovery, and Djokovic has given a statement saying that he will “do my best to be healthy and fit to return to the court as soon as possible.”

There is lingering anger over the decision by tournament organisers not to listen to Djokovic’s warnings that the courts were becoming dangerously slippery because of the constant rain during the past week and then the quick shift to dry conditions Saturday night and Monday afternoon when he played.

About an hour after the tournament announced the withdrawal, Djokovic posted on Instagram confirming the nature of the injury and added: “My team and I had to make a tough decision after careful consideration and consultation.”

When will Djokovic return to tennis?

It’s too early to tell. Meniscus tears vary in severity. It is very unlikely that Djokovic will appear at Wimbledon July 1, where he is a seven-time champion. If Djokovic does make the third Grand Slam of the year, he likely will not be as formidable a force as he has been for more than a decade when he has solidified his position as the world’s best grass-court player.

After Wimbledon, the tennis world’s focus turns to the Olympics at the end of July, where Djokovic will be desperate to win a first-ever gold medal at the Games.


What it means for the French Open

What does this mean for the French Open draw?

Djokovic’s withdrawal blows the top half of the draw wide open. Casper Ruud, the runner-up for the past two years, has a bye to the semifinals, where he will play No 4 seed Alexander Zverev, who beat Alex de Minaur in three sets on Wednesday night.

What does this mean for tennis more widely?

Whatever happens, there will be a new winner of this event for the first time since 2016, when Djokovic won his first title. Djokovic’s withdrawal also extends his difficult start to the year, where he is yet to reach a final. It’s the first time since 2018 that he has entered both of the first two Grand Slams of the year and won neither.

It also means a new ATP Tour world No. 1, with Jannik Sinner guaranteed to take that spot come Monday, June 10, achieving the milestone for the first time in his career.

Djokovic’s ranking position may tumble further. He has 1,200 points to defend at Wimbledon, 1,000 at Cincinnati, and 2,000 at the U.S. Open, making for a total of 4,200. Should he not be able to compete at those events, he will lose all his points from them (in addition to the 1,600 points coming off on Monday after his relatively early exit here), and his ranking would be down at around No. 8 in the world.

He would then be touch and go to even make November’s ATP Finals for the top-eight players of the year and in line for his worst year-end ranking since he finished just outside the top 10 in 2017 after an injury-ravaged season.


Two-time losing finalist Casper Ruud is straight into the semifinals (Dimitar Dilkoff / AFP via Getty Images)

What does this mean for the French Open organisers?

Djokovic pulling out is a nightmare for the French Tennis Federation (FFT).

He blamed the tournament and “very slippery” court for his injury on Monday and said his team would be speaking to the relevant event staff. The strength of feeling from the Djokovic camp was still there on Tuesday.

Djokovic’s exit also dramatically increases the chances of Zverev being crowned the champion on Sunday. Zverev, the No. 4 seed, is defending himself in a court hearing in Berlin over allegations that he abused a former girlfriend during an argument in 2020.

In October, the Berlin criminal court issued a penalty order, fining him €450,000 ($489,000; £384,000) in connection with the charges from Brenda Patea, a model and social media personality who is the mother of his daughter. Zverev denies the charges. In Germany, a prosecutor can seek a penalty order on cases it considers simple because there is compelling evidence that it should not require a trial.

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The defendant has a right to contest the order, which Zverev has done. On Friday, the court hearing began in Berlin, which Zverev did not have to attend. It continued on Monday, with Patea’s testimony given behind closed doors, and will carry on during a series of non-consecutive dates this month and next.

Unlike other league sports, the ATP Tour and tennis in general do not have a formal policy on domestic abuse. Zverev winning one of the biggest prizes in the sport would be an extremely uncomfortable situation for the tournament and the sport as a whole.

What do the players think?

Taking a quarterfinal off the schedule doesn’t really do much good for anyone. For Ruud himself, it means a potentially rhythm-disrupting three days off, while for spectators with day tickets for Wednesday, it meant they were a singles match short. Zverev may also perceive himself to be at a disadvantage in terms of recovery for their semifinal clash.

A withdrawal at this stage of the tournament — similar to the semifinal withdrawal of Rafael Nadal from Wimbledon in 2022 — immediately invites questions over sporting integrity.

One solution would be for Cerundolo, the man Djokovic beat, to be reinstated. The “lucky loser” already exists in tennis: players who lose in qualifying before main draws begin can stick around at the tournament venue and still enter the event if a player in the first round withdraws.

This concept hasn’t been applied to the actual tournaments. When asked about the possibility, semifinalist Sinner made the argument that is most often presented in opposition: “He lost already, no?”

Although reinstating the 23rd seed would bring back a match for spectators, and it would be hard to argue that Cerundolo would not be a deserving winner if he got through three elite players, it’s an imperfect solution. Djokovic, despite his injury, beat him fair and square to pick up the ranking points and prize money attached. In tennis, these are the breaks.

(Top photo: Ibrahim Ezzat / NurPhoto via Getty Images)