Djokovic playing the long game toward Paris success

 - Simon Cambers

World No 1 focused on grand slam glory after surprise Monte Carlo defeat

Novak Djokovic getting a bit upset during Monte-Carlo 2019© Chryslène Caillaud/FFT

When it comes to clay, patience is a virtue.

And for Novak Djokovic, success in this year’s clay-court season means one thing; winning Roland-Garros for the second time in his career.

Should he do that, he would also complete the Nole Slam for the second time, just as he did in 2016, when he finally triumphed in Paris, having lost in the final in three of the four previous years.

Focused on the grand slams

After his three-set defeat by Daniil Medvedev of Russia in the quarter-finals in Monte Carlo, Paris joy might seem a long way off. But more than at any time in his career, Djokovic is focused on the grand slams.

In the past, he has been a stunning front-runner, mopping up Masters 1000 titles all over the world as he enjoyed being world No 1, looking to dominate every week for fear of losing that the aura he built up.

Now, things are different. Though he went on a tear in the second half of 2019, losing just three times between Wimbledon and the end of the year, Djokovic has peaked at the grand slams, winning Wimbledon, the US Open, and then this year, crushing Rafael Nadal to win the Australian Open in January for his 15th slam crown.

“Roland-Garros is the ultimate goal on clay“

As Nadal said after Djokovic’s loss to the talented Medvedev, “everybody is human” and Djokovic has freely admitted that chasing down Roger Federer (20) and Nadal (17) at the top of the grand slam pile is his No 1 objective.

If that means losing every now and again between grand slams, then so be it. “(Roland-Garros) is the ultimate goal on clay,” Djokovic said. “For sure, it's expected in a way for me to peak right at that tournament, because that's what I'm aiming for. This is only the first tournament on clay, and it's a long season. Let's see how it goes.”

At 32, perhaps it’s unrealistic for Djokovic, or anyone, to dominate week in, week out as he did in 2011, when he won 10 titles, or in 2015 when he went one better with 11. Last year, as he returned from injury, he built his game on the clay, reaching the quarter-finals in Paris before hitting top form at Wimbledon and repeating it at the US Open.

Djokovic means business in Paris

In Australia this year, he barely missed a ball in the final against Nadal. Earlier than expected defeats in Indian Wells and Miami raised a few eyebrows but his team know that building through the clay-court season is the key. If he goes on to win the title at Roland-Garros in June then what happened before will quickly be forgotten.

On the eve of Monte Carlo, Djokovic was asked if he needs to win one of the three Masters 1000s on clay to be able to hit full steam in Paris. His answer: “Yes and no”. As he said, winning one of them would undoubtedly give him confidence but he has also done well at Roland-Garros without having won a clay-court title beforehand.

Maybe more than its effect on his own confidence, though, a win in Madrid or Rome, his two assignments before Paris, would send a signal to everyone – and in particular Nadal – that he means business in Paris.

The toughest task in tennis

The intensity wasn’t quite there against Medvedev and his movement was not as good as usual, especially in his sliding. But it’s all about the long game for Djokovic, which should help him to shake off a few unexpected defeats quickly.

“I obviously still am lacking that…determination to go for the shots maybe in some points,” he said. “Just too many unforced errors. Maybe I'm lacking the consistency with the top results in the last couple of years in the best tournaments. But (in) grand slams I have been playing my best, and that's what I intend to do.”

If Nadal dominates on clay as he did last year, and has done for so many years, then getting past the 11-time Roland-Garros champion in Paris is likely to again be the toughest task in tennis.

But after what Djokovic did at Wimbledon and the US Open last year and then at the Australian Open this year, no one should doubt he has it in him.