Twelve months after his latest bid to complete a career Grand Slam was thwarted, Novak Djokovic targets an elusive French Open title with time and history threatening to conspire against him.
The world No1 was left in tears in 2015 when Stan Wawrinka unleashed a battery of single-handed backhand winners to all corners of Court Philippe Chatrier on his way to a shock Paris title. Djokovic’s coach, Boris Becker, described that day as a “big storm”, and the top seed’s team will be looking to avoid a repeat this time around.
“You have to be there when the sun shines and you have to be there when there’s a storm, and that was a big storm,” Becker told Sport360 of that French Open final defeat.
“It was part of my job and the Djokovic team to lift him up, touch his spirits and his inner soul, for him to understand this was a tough loss but the only way out is up.
“The next tournament thankfully was Wimbledon so there was enough motivation to go back on the practice court. But believe me some of the practices were difficult. Because he was still labouring the defeat against Stan but it speaks to his character and determination to find a way within to hold the trophy at Wimbledon four weeks later.”
Djokovic turns 29 today and will be playing Roland Garros for a 12th time where he remains the overwhelming favourite to secure a trophy which would also place him halfway to the first calendar Grand Slam since 1969.
But tennis is littered with great names whose Grand Slam pedigree endured shattering reality checks on Roland Garros’ unforgiving crushed red brick surfaces.
Pete Sampras won 14 majors but 13 times the great American tried to win the French Open and 13 times he failed. Stefan Edberg also made 13 fruitless visits while Becker tried nine times. John McEnroe also flopped, the four-time US Open and three-time Wimbledon winner having to console himself with a runners-up spot in Paris in 1984.
Djokovic, with 11 majors under his belt, has come closer than all of them. He has been runner-up three times and a semi-finalist on four occasions. He starts in Paris against Taiwan’s Lu Yen-Hsun, the world No100. He is seeded to face Tomas Berdych in the last-eight before a potential semi-final blockbuster against nine-time champion Rafael Nadal in what would be the 50th meeting between them.
“I still feel like I have plenty of more years ahead of me, which gives me more comfort in terms of opportunities I’m going to have at the title of Roland Garros, which releases more pressure for me this year,” said Djokovic. “I don’t try to approach them from a view of being obsessed with this tournament.”
World No2 Murray is shaping up as Djokovic’s greatest threat. He may be 8,000 points behind in the world rankings, but the former US Open and Wimbledon winner has developed a taste for clay relatively late in his career. His 6-3, 6-3 win over Djokovic in the final of the Foro Italico came on his 29th birthday. Murray has steadily improved in Paris with three semi-final runs in his last four appearances, losing a five-set epic to Djokovic in 2015.
He faces 37-year-old Czech qualifier Radek Stepanek in the first round with a potential semi-final against Wawrinka.
“Qualifiers have played three matches. That’s tough. They have won three matches here. They are probably feeling pretty good about their conditions and comfortable on the courts,” said Murray.
Nadal was promoted to fourth seed after Roger Federer withdrew from Paris with injury ending a run of 65 consecutive Slam appearances stretching back to 1999.
Written off after a 2015 campaign saw him endure his worst season in a decade, the 29-year-old Spaniard won in Monte Carlo for the ninth time and then clinched the Barcelona crown to equal Guillermo Vilas’ record of 49 career clay-court titles.
Nadal starts his quest for a 10th French Open against big-serving Sam Groth of Australia. With his 30th birthday just around the corner, Nadal has arguably the toughest draw – Italy’s Fabio Fognini, who came back from two sets down to beat him at the US Open last year, is a possible third round opponent.
Austrian Dominic Thiem, who knocked Federer out in Rome, is lying in wait in the round of 16.
“I’m not feeling old. On court it is true that I had a lot of years here on the tour, but in terms of mentality and in terms of life I feel myself young,” said Nadal. “I don’t think about going to be 30.”
Defending champion Wawrinka has endured a mixed clay season – a quarter-final in Monte Carlo, an opening loss in Madrid and just one win in Rome. He will hope to fly under the radar once again.
World No.6 Kei Nishikori of Japan remains an outside hope. The 26-year-old was runner-up in Barcelona to Nadal and then lost semi-finals to Djokovic in Madrid and Rome.
But Nishikori’s record at the French Open is modest with a quarter-final spot last year representing his best performance.
He will be targeting a 50th grand slam match win on Sunday when he faces Simone Bolelli in a tricky French Open first round.