Five unlikely Roland-Garros favourites
A Rome semifinal hints at a return to form for Novak Djokovic as he targets another title at Roland-Garros.
The wheel of fortune lurches at breakneck speed in top-flight tennis. Just ask Novak Djokovic.
Having struggled to shake off injury and establish any form in 2018, he has peppered the clay-court season with glimpses of the player we used to know. Then he strung together four wins in Rome and gave his longtime foe Rafael Nadal a test before succumbing in two intriguing sets in the semifinals.
What some had seen as the dying embers of the Serb’s career abruptly sparked back in to flame in Rome, posing the tantalising question of what more he might deliver at Roland-Garros 2018, two years after his debut title on the Parisian clay completed his simultaneous sweep of all four Grand Slams.
Given the long road Djokovic has travelled since that emotional day when he was the first man since 1969 to own the Slam quartet, what a story it would be if he were to emerge once again as a true threat at this championship.
If he is to do it, Djokovic – who turns 31 today – will need more than to continue that (very) recent run of good form. The fact is that his old air of iron-clad invincibility, where many opponents were mentally on their way to defeat before stepping on court, remains a mere memory. The man who spent 223 weeks at no.1 is now ranked 20 places lower, and much may hinge on a helpful draw if he is to pierce the business end of this tournament. Every victory will be a significant step.
"I believe that one match, one tournament can turn things around one way or another," Djokovic said in Rome. "I thought the level of my tennis (against Nadal) was very high. I can only take positives from this week. I've played four matches here. I didn't really expect anything coming into this tournament, when it comes to results, because I didn't have many great results in the last period. So I'm pleased with how I've played last three days, very pleased. And hopefully Roland Garros can be just a continuation of this run.
"Looking back two or three months, this is the best that I've felt on the court, by far."
Perhaps the weightiest contributor at Roland-Garros will be that which others cannot see and only the 12-time Slam champion can know with certainty – his true mental state.
In the ever-shifting sands of world tennis, where competitors must relentlessly rationalise each win and loss into productive information, is Djokovic sufficiently ravenous to figure out a path – if such a path even exists – to take him within touching distance of the heights of old?
The task is huge. Now a father-of-two, having dialled down his customary fierce focus while recovering from an elbow injury in the second half of 2017, can he really take that desire back up to the levels which were once second nature?
For all the thrill of his re-ignition in Rome, it cannot be overlooked that 2018 was up until that point rather chaotic. When the Australian Open witnessed his first straight-sets defeat there for 11 years, in the last 16 to Hyeon Chung, he declared he had returned too soon from injury and regrouped until the Sunshine Double, only to lose in the second round at both. There followed the formal dissolution of his ten-month coaching partnership with Andre Agassi, and the re-engagement of Marion Vajda, cast aside just 12 months previously after 11 years as part of Djokovic’s attempt at personal reinvention.
He played encouragingly in Monte Carlo and declared himself pain-free for the first time in two years, before falling at the first hurdle in Barcelona to the world no.140 Martin Klizan, at which point he had assembled the worst start to any season since he turned professional in 2003 with five wins and five defeats. In Madrid he scored his first win over a top 20 player in ten months by dispatching Kei Nishikori before losing next match to the rising Briton Kyle Edmund, after which came that run to the semi-finals in Rome.
Perhaps tennis historians will ultimately look back on that streak as the forerunner of the most extraordinary chapter of all in Djokovic’s career. And of course, perhaps not. But stranger things have happened in tennis … and a lot of us can’t wait to find out how it will unfold.