Losses to Ivo Karlovic and Roger Federer in the Middle East aside, Novak Djokovic has played a perfect season, lifting the big trophy at the Australian Open, and masters titles in Indian Wells, Miami, Monte Carlo and Rome. In the week leading up to the French Open, the 27-year-old will head to Paris with more tailwind than ever. With perennial conqueror Rafael Nadal struggling, everything seems to be lining up for the World No. 1. But at the height of his power, will his eagerness to capture the elusive Coupe des Mousquetaires prove to be the biggest hurdle of them all?
René Denfeld contemplates some of the Serb’s possible pitfalls the evening before the draw ceremony:
The build-up to to French Open has become more and more intriguing with each passing year. Ever since dominating the first five months of 2011, Novak Djokovic has made no secret of his quest for Roland Garros glory, but he ultimately found himself losing to Federer in that year, and later Nadal over the next three.
With his best start to a season since 2011, the Serb once again finds himself in pole position to make a push for the title in Paris and. While the whole world wonders what Nadal will do, or whether Murray is as good on clay as his undefeated record leads to believe, Djokovic appears to be the one player without question marks.
But is that really the case?
The top seed has stated on several occasions that he is playing some of the best tennis of his life, and is in the prime of his career. Few would be willing to argue that assessment, since Djokovic has come out on top when it matters most in the last eight months. Most recently in Rome, the Serb needed a few days to get the engine going, but by the weekend, he was motoring through the his semifinal, and his dispatch of Roger Federer was almost clinical.
The 27-year-old certainly left Italy an exclamation mark, but a question remains: how far behind is the rest of the field? At the moment, it seems to be quite a gulf, but Djokovic hasn’t met an in-form Murray since Miami — but can even an in-form Murray pose significant difficulties for the Serb? On clay, no less?
While Djokovic beat Nadal in straight sets in Monte Carlo, no one knows how much the nine-time French Open Champion could improve within the next two weeks. The Spaniard’s level is the lowest we’ve seen on his favourite surface in over a decade — but should he find his confidence on the way to the French capital, there is a viable chance that everything else will fall into place, as well.
Djokovic probably would have been most relaxed going into Roland Garros had he played and the Spaniard at his best. As it stands now, the doubted surrounding the former No. 1 inevitably affect the most dominating player on the tour right now, too.
“I don’t want to overload. I don’t want it to become and obsession”, Djokovic said about the Coupe des Mousquetaires — the one big trophy missing from his collection. That “wrong kind of emotion,” as he calls it, is wanting to finally seal the deal in Paris so much that it might paralyze him.
But could anyone blame him if he got overexcited, looking at the way this year has developed? Nadal, the dominating force of this tournament has not been the player we knew in previous years. By contrast, Djokovic is coming into this tournament with his best start to a season since 2011.
The might have been a favorable Djokovic constellation in previous years, but never have the stars aligned as much as they have this spring. Is he going to be able to take it one match at a time? Or will the magnitude of the opportunity maybe trip him up? His focus over the past few months suggests the former, but the French Open has been a particular beast to deal with for the Serb.
One factor that has barely been mentioned — but proven to rile Djokovic up more than anything else in recent years — are partisan crowds. Think back to London last year, or even Indian Wells and Miami this year. It has never thrown him completely off track but, at the very least, it has rattled him in one way or another. If there’s one thing the Parisian crowd is good at, it’s changing the rhythm of a match by making its presence felt — regardless of whether a player has done something worth inciting their wrath or not.
At any other tournament, Djokovic would be the overwhelming favorite to win the title. In a way, he is the overwhelming favorite in Paris, too. However, there are a few peculiarities about the French Open that the Serb wouldn’t face in other events: Nadal’s stranglehold over Paris, a flippant crowd, and the pressure — or is it the privilege? — of the career Grand Slam being more tangible than ever before.
Will Djokovic stumble over any of these roadblocks?
The draw should give a better indication and make some more concrete predictions and estimations possible. As long as he keeps a minimum distance of 10 meters from any champagne bottles, he’ll certainly have a very good shot at walking away with another Slam trophy in his bags.