Molcan has ace up his sleeve against Djokovic

 - Chris Oddo

In a rare role reversal, the world No.1 will have his former coach in his opponent's corner for the first time

Alex Molcan, Roland Garros 2022, first round© Remy Chautard/FFT

It may seem like business as usual: Novak Djokovic hitting his stride in Paris, fresh off his sixth Rome title, and emerging as one of the top favourites at Roland-Garros. 

But peel back the layers of this onion and something is decidedly different. 

Last year in Paris, when Djokovic made history by becoming the first man in history to earn multiple victories over 13-time champion Rafael Nadal at the French Open, his right-hand man Marian Vajda, as had been the custom for a decade and a half, was guiding him. 

There are photos of Djokovic in the locker room a few days later, the Coupe des Mousquetaires settled in the triumphant Serb’s lap after he defeated Stefanos Tsitsipas for his second title in Paris.

By his side is Vajda, his arms around the Serb as each exuberantly thrusts a fist into the air. 

This year they'll be on different sides of the court. 

Novak Djokovic and team Roland-Garros 2021©Corinne Dubreuil / FFT

'The universe is working'

Djokovic and Vajda officially parted ways in March and Vajda is now coaching Slovakia’s top-ranked player, Alex Molcan. Making matters even stranger is the fact that Molcan defeated Argentina’s Federicio Coria on Tuesday, setting up a second-round clash with Djokovic. 

“It’s funny,” said the 38th-ranked Slovakian. “The universe is working… last week when I was in Lyon we saw the draw and we were like, ‘Oh, wow’. But still we needed to win the first round, which was hard, of course, because Coria is a really good player. 

“I was just focusing on my first match [at Roland-Garros] but I knew, somewhere deep in my head that if I won I would have the chance to play against Djokovic with Marian. It’s funny, and I’m looking forward to it.” 

Adding Vajda to the mix could be the last piece to a puzzle that Molcan has systematically put together over the last year. This time last year the southpaw was outside the top 250. Twelve months on, Molcan resides at a career-high ranking of 38.

Alex Molcan, Roland Garros 2022, first round© Remy Chautard/FFT

Molcan says that playing the final - as a qualifier - at the ATP 250 event in Belgrade in May of 2021, where he lost to Djokovic, 6-4, 6-3, was key for his development.

"There was one good result in Belgrade, which back then for me it was like winning a Grand Slam, and I was in the final of a 250. That helped me a lot to grow my confidence, and then I started to take things more seriously, I was looking at my body, looking at everything more precise and doing the right things," said Molcan, whose best appearance at a major so far was making the third round at the US Open last fall.

Prior to 2022, Molcan had recorded only four top-100 wins. In 2022, he already has nine.

The presence of Vajda in Molcan’s box is a fact that does not go unnoticed by Djokovic. Emotionally, the prospect of playing against his long-time coach creates a tricky sentiment. 

“I have written to Marian a couple of days ago, and we have seen each other today and yesterday,” he told Serbian reporters on Monday night in Paris. “When I saw the draw it really wasn’t easy. I don’t know how I will feel on the court.” 

Djokovic, who is coached by Goran Ivanisevic now, says that facing Molcan isn’t strange. But having Vajda coaching against him? Just plain weird. 

“Molcan is for me an opponent just like anybody else, but on the other hand I have never had Marian on the opposing team. To be completely honest I don’t want to have to experience it now.” 

Molcan is more eager for the Djokovic challenge, especially with Vajda now working with a coaching team that includes former world No.36 Karol Beck. 

A special alliance

Long before Vajda and Molcan made their pairing official, Molcan reached out to his fellow Slovakian asking for advice on who to choose as his new coach. Vajda recommended Beck, which explains why there is already such good synergy amongst the team. 

“I was just asking him if he had some advice for me about how to find a coach, or the right one, so he actually said that Karol Beck would be a good choice, so that was the first step,” Molcan explains. 

The 24-year-old from Presov, Slovakia, says he didn’t talk to Vajda too much after that. But when he heard of the split with Djokovic in March, the pair reconnected, and things got more serious.

Marian Vajda, Novak Djokovic, Roland Garros 2020, practice© Nicolas Gouhier/FFT

“Somehow we met once more and I saw that he is positive about me, about my game, about maybe to connect ourselves,” Molcan continues. “Then we were talking about that he can join the team, so here we are and so far everything is perfect, the whole team clicked, they understand each other.” 

Though Molcan will enter the court against Djokovic as the extreme underdog, he’s hoping that Vajda can help him unlock what would be the biggest win of his career by far. 

“We are two people on the court, anyone can win, I will try my best and we will see the result,” he said.