The Serb is bidding to become only the eighth man to win a career grand slam, and his chances this year are aided by Rafael Nadal’s patchy form on his favourite surface, writes Ahmed Rizvi.
Djokovic primed to add the one grand slam missing from his CV at French Open
Over the past few months, amid the heat and dirt of India’s general elections, a slogan caught the imagination of the nation. Roughly translated, it meant: “This is the time for a Narendra Modi government”.
Heading into the French Open, you could hear a similar song: “This is the time for Novak Djokovic”. And there are good reasons for that chorus.
First, the “King of Clay” seems to have lost his cloak of invincibility. World No 1 Rafael Nadal’s reign has never looked shakier. From the time he first set foot on the terre battue of Paris in 2005 as a 18 year old in sleeveless shirts and pirate pants, the Spaniard had always arrived at Roland Garros with at least a couple of European clay-court titles.
This time, he is fortunate to have one, claimed after a bad back forced Kei Nishikori to retire from the final of the Madrid Open. Also, Nadal has lost three matches on clay this season, the most since 2004, and he is yet to beat a top-five player this year. That translates into something less than optimal momentum as he starts his quest for a fifth French Open title in succession. And belief has always played a huge part in Nadal’s success.
Djokovic, on the other hand, will be high on confidence after four consecutive wins over Nadal, including an impressive come-from-behind victory in the Rome Masters final. The Serbian has dropped just one set in those four duels.
The world No 2 has captured five of the past seven Masters events and looks primed to get his hands around the Coupe de Musquetaires – the only major trophy missing from his resume. Only seven men have completed a career grand slam in tennis and Djokovic has set his heart on becoming the eighth.
“Roland Garros is always at the top of my priority list and ambitions,” he said. “It’s the only slam I haven’t won, so this is where I want to win, and I’m going to go for it. I think my game is there, and I’m very, very motivated.”
Djokovic has made nine trips to Paris, and in five of those years, his journey has been cut short by Nadal – three times in the semis, including a four-hour, 37-minute epic last year that finished 9-7 in the fifth – and then the 2012 final.
In 2011, when he came to Paris with victories over Nadal in the finals at Indian Wells, Miami, Madrid and Rome, Djokovic’s bid for French glory was halted by Roger Federer in the semi-finals.
“The last few years have been quite successful for me in Roland Garros, especially the last two, where I played finals and semi-finals and lost in both of the matches against Nadal, who has the best record on clay and best record here in Roland Garros, and is obviously still the No 1 favourite to win the tournament this year,” Djokovic said in Paris.
“But I have played some epic matches against him, especially the one last year in the semi-finals. We went the distance, so even though it was a tough loss on me and I was putting a lot of emotional effort into winning this event last year, I still take the positives from that tournament.
“Knowing that I have gotten closer and closer each year to the title gives me enough reason to be confident for the start of this year.”
And if he needed any further assurances, the win in Rome, where he hit a staggering 46 winners to Nadal’s 15, provided that. “Winning against Nadal on clay is something that doesn’t happen every day,” Djokovic said. “The tournament win in Rome came at the right moment for me. For my confidence level, it’s definitely a booster and a positive thing.
“Hopefully, I can carry that confidence coming into Roland Garros … I’m healthy and obviously very motivated and inspired to play my best tennis here.”
Indeed, a win over Nadal on clay is a rarity. From 2005 to the start of the European clay-court swing this year, the Spaniard had suffered only 11 defeats on the surface, while amassing 271 victories.
Since April, he is 13-3 on clay, with the first two men to beat him – David Ferrer and Nicolas Almagro – positioned in the same half of the French Open draw. Almagro, who brought his 41-match winning streak at Barcelona to an end, could pop up in the fourth round, while Ferrer, who knocked him out in Monaco, is a possible quarter-final opponent. Stan Wawrinka, his conqueror in the Australian Open final, could be waiting for him in the semis.
Nadal has a few dicey matches before that as well. He could run into Austrian Dominic Thiem, one of the tour’s brightest young stars, who beat Wawrinka in Madrid, in the second round. The Bucharest champion, Grigor Dimitrov, could be his fourth-round opponent.
So, the four-time defending champion will need to get through a tricky field before he potentially meets Djokovic in the final. They have met in six grand slam finals, with three victories apiece, but given Nadal’s uncharacteristic struggles on clay this season, the Serbian seems to be the favourite.
Nadal has been stretched to five sets on clay just four times: by Guillermo Coria and Federer in the Rome finals in 2005 and 2006, and John Isner (2011) and Djokovic (2013) at Roland Garros.
During his magical season in 2011, Djokovic beat the Spaniard in seven consecutive finals, including at Wimbledon and the US Open, and the 2012 Australian Open.
If their clash in last year’s French semis is any indication, the Serb also looks the only man with the game and the determination to take Nadal down in five sets at Roland Garros. That said, Nadal relishes those longer battles.
“I never like the easy matches,” Nadal told Time magazine earlier this month. “I think that good sportsmen don’t like the easy wins … At the end, if you are winning with a little more drama, it stays in your mind a lot longer than when you are winning easy, no?”
At the same time, Nadal does not relish seeing Djokovic on the other side of the net, despite a 22-19 head-to-head record.
Earlier this year, the Spaniard was asked if he was glad Djokovic existed.
“No,” he said with a smile. “I like challenges, but I am not stupid.”