Roland Garros Will Novak Djokovic Finally Win the French Open Trophy?
Roland Garros is days from getting underway, and the big story of the tournament is Novak Djokovic’s bid to finally take the title and complete the Non Calendar Year Grand Slam. The Tennis Review looks at Djokovic’s history at the French Open, his recent form, and his draw, and asks if this Roland Garros will finally be Novak’s year to reign in Paris.
History: Djokovic’s speed, stamina, aggressive baseline game, superior defensive skills, and his return of serve make him one of the ATP’s toughest competitors on Clay and have earned him three runner-up finishes at Roland Garros (2012, 2014, 2015).
Since 2011, the Serbian has been either the favorite to take the title, or joint favorite with Rafael Nadal, but, despite positive match ups with his rivals and good form coming into the event, he has been unable to fulfill his French Open title winning potential.
Djokovic’s defeats at Roland Garros since 2011:
In 2011, Djokovic was beaten by Roger Federer in a sublime performance by the Swiss.
In 2012, Djokovic made his first final, and played Nadal, but just when he was hitting his stride, after falling two sets behind, and won the third in favorable damp heavy conditions, play was called off. The next day, a hot one which allowed the Spaniard’s heavy top spin to shine, Djokovic managed to stay with Nadal until 5-6 in the fourth when the pressure, like Nadal’s clay court skills, proved too much to handle and he hit a double fault championship point down.
In 2013, in the semi-finals, top seed Djokovic led Nadal by a break in the final set when his racket touched the net before a ball he struck bounced, losing the point, his serve, his momentum, and finally the match.
In 2014, Djokovic was hit by a virus and played a sub-par final, going down in four sets to Nadal.
In 2015 Djokovic was overwhelmed by the all-conquering ball striking of Stan Wawrinka.
For: Djokovic ‘s three finals in the last four years means he has no problem getting to the Championship match and another trip there this year is well within his capabilities.
Against: Great players throughout tennis history have struggled to complete the Career Slam let alone the Calendar one- Lendl at Wimbledon, McEnroe and Sampras at the French-and the battle to win that elusive title gets harder and harder as the big losses pile up.
Djokovic has been unable to perform at his best or take his opportunities these past five years in the big matches in Paris- are the wounds caused by such painful defeats too deep for him to rise above?
Watch Novak Djokovic receiving a warm standing ovation from the Roland Garros crowd in last season’s final.
Form going into the event: Djokovic has a stellar first quarter of 2016, but suffered a shock loss to Jiri Vesely in his Monte Carlo opener.
The Serb bounced back to take the title in Madrid, but the faster conditions tell us little about Djokovic’s Roland Garros chances.
In Rome, where conditions are more similar to Paris, we learned more about the Serb’s slow court clay game this season, and the lesson will have been a hard one for his fans to take.
Djokovic dropped a love set to Bellucci, was pushed by Nadal in their toughest contest since the Roland Garros ’14 final, and trailed Kei Nishikori 1-3 in a final set tiebreaker.
In the Rome final, Djokovic had his ankle strapped, protested against playing in the rainy conditions which hampered his movement, and lost in straights to Andy Murray.
That run of events suggests Djokovic is struggling on slow Clay, and is having a tough time mentally, the last situation he wants to be in going into the only slam he has not won.
For: Djokovic has played eleven matches, won nine of them, beaten Milos Raonic, Kei Nishikori (twice), Nadal and Murray, and the title in Madrid means he has not gone too long without a dose of that winning feeling he enjoys so often.
Djokovic also fought hard in Rome despite being out of sorts. Winning on an off day is as much a part of winning slams as playing your best – a skill Djokovic has showcased beautifully in his last three consecutive slam wins, but has not yet mastered at Roland Garros.
Also, while Djokovic did suffer two bad losses, beating the world No.1 in three sets is one thing, but beating him in five on clay in Paris is another. Only Nadal, Federer and Wawrinka, all three of them Roland Garros champs, have managed it since 2011.
Not peaking yet on Clay may actually work in Djokovic’s favor. The Clay season has the longest lead-in of any of the Slams, and so it is easy for a player who wins as many matches as Djokovic does to peak before the Slam itself. This year, in playing below his level, Djokovic may actually be playing it right and play himself into peak form when he needs it most to put his name up there with the all-time greats-in the Roland Garros final.
Against: Djokovic suffered some undesirable firsts in his losses to Vesely and Murray- the first time he lost in his opening match since Madrid ’13, and the first time he lost to Murray on Clay.
The loss to Vesely may give some heart to lower-ranked underdogs, while the loss to Murray will have given hope to Murray himself that he can beat Djokovic on the Roland Garros clay, and to Djokovic’s other top ten rivals who have gone a while without beating him.
First round: Yen-Hsun Lu, ranked 100. Djokovic leads this series 1-0 though that match happened at Wimbledon 2010.
Lu has not played a professional match on Clay since last season’s Roland Garros where he lost in the second round to Kevin Anderson.
Second round: Qualifiers Steve Darcis or Marcel Ilhan. Steve Darcis, who upset Rafa Nadal at Wimbledon 2013, has the big serving attacking game that can trouble Djokovic. Both men will also be comfortable having played through qualifiers and won a round in the main draw.
Third round: Federico Delbonis (31). The two have never met, and the Argentine recently reached his career high ranking of 33 with semi-final appearances in Istanbul and Bucharest, and a title win in Marrakesh. Delbonis also upset Murray in Indian Wells.
This could be a tough match for Djokovic, but Delbonis is pretty inexperienced at Slams, going 4-10 in his career (1-3 in Paris) and Djokovic’s far greater experience should see him through if the match get messy.
Fourth round: Roberto Bautista-Agut (14). Djokovic leads the head to head 4-0 and won their most recent match at the Madrid Open 6-2, 6-1. Bautista Agut has won a set, though, at the US Open ’15 in round four.
Quarter-final: Tomas Berdych (7) . Djokovic has beaten Berdych the last ten times they have played, and leads the series 23-2. One of Berdych’s victories came on Clay though, back at the 2013 Rome Open.
Pablo Cuevas, (25), is in Berdych’s section of the draw, and could take advantage of the Czech’s poor recent form, and reach the last eight. The Clay courter has defeated Nadal in Rio this season, won titles in Rio and Sao Paulo, reached the last 32 in Paris last year (defeated Thiem), and won the 2008 French Open Men’s doubles crown.
Djokovic and Cuevas have never played.
Semi-final: Rafael Nadal (4). Djokovic leads Nadal 26-23 and has won their last seven matches, three of them on Clay, in straight sets.
Final: Andy Murray (2). Djokovic leads the series 23-10, has won 12 of their last 14 matches and leads 4-1 on Clay. Both Murray’s slam wins, however, have come against Djokovic.
For: Djokovic has a positive head to head versus all his rivals and has dominated them in the recent past.
Against: Nadal and Murray have both been playing some of their best tennis on Clay, and must be feeling confident of their chances. Murray is playing even better than he was last season when he took Djokovic to five sets on the Serb’s way to the final.
Djokovic could end up playing Stan Wawrinka in a repeat of that final. The Swiss showed last year he has a powerful enough game to hit through Djokovic on Clay and also has the psychological edge that comes along with that kind of win.
Conclusion: Djokovic may not get this close to creating such illustrious history as the Non-Calendar Year Slam again (the Career Slam will be up for the taking for the next few years) which must be both inspiring and terrifying at the same time.
No one would put achieving such a feat past a player whose record already glitters with some of tennis’ most impressive historic achievements.
The only person it seems who may doubt he can do it is Djokovic himself. If the Serb can win that battle of battles, then the ones he will face in Roland Garros would be, in comparison, nothing more strenuous than casual strolls in the very pretty courts of Paris.
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