Djokovic contemplates history

 - Kate Battersby

Former RG champ can become first man in Open Era to hold all four majors... twice.

Novak Djokovic practice© Pauline Ballet / FFT

One way or another, history is likely to be made in the men’s tournament at Roland-Garros. Among the momentous possibilities is that Novak Djokovic will become the first man in the Open Era to hold all four Grand Slams twice.

The Serb is so firmly cemented into the No.1 spot that it is positively bizarre to recall his situation of 12 months ago. In 2018 he arrived in Paris ranked outside the top 20, as he struggled to recover conclusively from injury. He lost in the quarter-finals to Marco Cecchinato, who had never won a Grand Slam match before that tournament, and departed the city in self-confessed bewilderment.

Fast forward six months to November and he was No.1 again, having captured Wimbledon and the US Open. By this year’s Australian Open he was utterly untouchable.

Yet his 2019 since then has been a right old puzzle, as he has seemed distracted by the off-court tennis politics in which he plays a role. He lost to Philipp Kohlschreiber in Indian Wells and Roberto Bautista Agut in Miami, before Daniil Medvedev toppled him in Monte Carlo. For a player so crushingly in command of the rankings, it was all a tad ordinary.

Return to form

Then came Madrid, where he roared to the title without losing a set – although his path was smoothed by Stefanos Tsitsipas’s useful defeat of Rafael Nadal in the semi-finals. Astonishingly it was Djokovic’s first title on clay since his annus mirabilis in 2016.

But when Nadal stood in his way in the Rome final, defeat included the first 6-0 set ever to occur between them in 54 meetings stretching back 13 years, and Djokovic was on the wrong end of it. The Serb, who looked somewhat drained at times, took the match into a decider, but Nadal’s ultimate triumph gives the Spaniard all the momentum as the Paris dirt looms.

“He is the main favourite to win the title – it wouldn't be fair to pick anybody else but him,” declared Djokovic in his first public words at Roland-Garros. “Lots of respect for him, obviously, as always. We had a good match in Rome. He was a better player. Was just too strong. I felt like I had a fantastic couple weeks in Madrid and Rome, and I probably ran out of gas a little bit in the finals with a couple of long matches and late-night finishes. Overall very positive weeks, and it's a great lead-up to what's coming up here.”

Robin Soderling – who shares with the Serb the distinction of having inflicted defeat upon Nadal at Roland-Garros – believes no player other than Djokovic can topple the 11-time champion here, despite Tsitsipas’s achievement in Madrid.

“He's beaten him many times on clay, beat him once [in 2015] in Paris as well,” said Soderling, who downed Nadal here 10 years ago. “He's maybe the only guy right now that has the chance to stand up against Nadal on clay. If he plays his best tennis as he did in Melbourne in the final against Rafa, where he just crushed him then of course he can beat him on clay as well.”

Djokovic, who turned 32 this week, says he has been preparing to peak at Roland-Garros.

“This is the tournament I have been preparing for,” he said. “Twelve months ago, the situation was quite different. Now I hold three slams and being No.1 of the world, obviously I have more confidence, and hopefully I can have a good two weeks.

"I love playing in Roland Garros always throughout my career, and especially in the last four or five years I received a lot of support from the French crowd. Because of that support, I managed to win this title in 2016.

"Holding all four slams three years ago gives me enough reason to believe I can do it again.”