PARIS, May 26: Novak Djokovic arrives at Roland Garros seven wins away from becoming the first man for 43 years to hold all four Grand Slam titles concurrently — the only trouble is one of his victims will probably have to be claycourt king Rafa Nadal at the French Open which starts from Sunday.
The 25-year-old Serb will be seeded one at the French Open, courtesy of the top ranking that goes with being the current Wimbledon, US Open and Australian Open champion.
However, few will mark him down as favourite with Nadal, who Djokovic calls the ‘ultimate challenge’ on clay, peaking at just the right time to chase a seventh Paris title and move him ahead of Bjorn Borg in the pantheon of Roland Garros champions.
Last year, Djokovic began in Paris on a claycourt roll after beating Nadal in the Madrid and Rome finals — only to fall to an inspired Roger Federer in the semi-finals.
His form this year has been impressive, if not quite as spectacular as last year when he won his first 41 matches of 2011 before the four-set loss to Federer.
He has also relinquished his iron-like hold over Nadal — losing in the Monte Carlo and Rome finals having won his previous seven matches against the Mallorcan powerhouse.
Having beaten a rejuvenated Federer in the Rome semis, however, and with world No 4 Andy Murray not in the best form or fitness, there appear few natural barriers to prevent Djokovic facing his day of destiny on June 10.
Should he win his first French Open title Djokovic would join Australia’s Rod Laver (1962 and 1969) and American Don Budge (1938) as holders of all four slams at the same time.
To achieve it now, however, would be a considerably greater feat as back then three of the four slams were played on grass whereas now players must master three surfaces.
Another title for Nadal would leave little room for argument about the left-hander’s credentials as the greatest claycourt player of all time.
After beating Federer in last year’s final to draw level with Borg, Nadal failed to win another tournament until last month in Monte Carlo — a worrying gap that revived questions about the effect his playing style was having on his body.
He then won in Barcelona and, apart from a blip on Madrid’s experimental blue clay when he lost to fellow Spaniard Fernando Verdasco, Nadal has looked supreme.
In winning the Madrid title and briefly returning to world No 2 Federer delighted his armies of fans and if the weather in Paris is warm and the courts fast the evergreen Swiss will be a serious contender.
Murray proved last year in reaching the semi-finals and pushing Nadal close that he has both the firepower and patience to be a threat and it will be interesting to see what impact his coach Ivan Lendl will have on the Scot’s belief.
All the title contenders will cast anxious glances to the skies throughout the tournament — knowing that the Paris weather can be fickle in early summer.
With the sun out the courts play high and fast but throw in some dampness and the clay starts to cling and matches become a survival of the fittest.
Either way, Nadal remains the man to beat.
On the women’s side and based on form alone, Maria Sharapova enters the French Open as favourite to complete her career Grand Slam, a surprising turn of events for the Miami-based Russian whose relationship with the red dust has not always been a happy one.
Her recent title in Rome, where she defeated 2011 French Open champion Li Na in the final, coupled with her resounding victory over world No 1 Victoria Azarenka to win Stuttgart a few weeks earlier means she is 12-1 for the claycourt swing and sliding into Paris full of joie de vivre.
Significantly, however, that one blot on her record was inflicted by American Serena Williams on Madrid’s blue clay.
Thirteen-time Grand Slam champion Williams, who like Sharapova has endured more than her fair share of injuries over the years, has enjoyed an encouraging year so far and recently went on a 17-match winning streak, including the Madrid title.
Alarm bells rang when she withdrew from her semi-final against Li Na in Rome because of a knee niggle, but it was thought to be more of a precautionary measure ahead of Paris rather than anything too serious.
Williams, who a year ago was still absent from the Tour after a career-threatening foot injury and health problems, is back up to No 5 in the world and targeting a second French Open crown, 10 years after her first.
Of the new generation, Australian Open champion Azarenka has already proved herself worthy of the top ranking, both with her play and the mental fortitude that the likes of Wimbledon champion Petra Kvitova have yet to demonstrate.
Belarusian Azarenka begun the year in stunning fashion, winning her first four tournaments, and her form on clay has been impressive with finals in Stuttgart and Madrid, losing to Sharapova and Williams respectively.—Reuters