Can anyone stop Novak Djokovic?
This is the big question in the world of tennis at the moment, and one that we might have a concrete answer to in the next few weeks.
That’s because the second Grand Slam of the year, the French Open, gets underway on Sunday 24 May. It is the only major title eluding the world number one. He has run into his biggest rivals in past quests for glory on the clay, but 2015 presents his best chance to finally win at Roland Garros.
His form this year has been sensational. It is reminiscent of his start to 2011, when he went 41 matches unbeaten before losing to an inspired Federer in the semi-finals at this very tournament. He has won five of the the seven events he has played in 2015, including the Masters 1000 events at Indian Wells, Miami, Monte Carlo and last week’s Italian Open. He has never before achieved both of the clay court titles in Monaco and Rome in the same year, meaning that he goes into this year’s French Open unbeaten on clay (and lucky to have his left eye intact…).
His other tournament victory was probably the biggest victory of the lot. By defeating Britain’s Andy Murray in a thrilling final, the Serb lifted his fifth Australian Open title, a new Melbourne record in the Open Era. It saw him tie some huge names in the tennis world on eight major titles, most notably Ivan Lendl and Andre Agassi.
The latter of these two is one of just three men since 1964 to have completed the ‘Career Grand Slam’ by winning all four major titles. Ironically, the other two – Roger Federer and Rafael Nadal – are currently Djokovic’s biggest rivals. These two sporting greats will probably have the biggest say as to whether now is the time that the Serb joins one of the most illustrious lists in sport.
Despite a 66-1 match winning record at Roland Garros, Nadal does not go into this year’s event as the favourite
With 31 Grand Slam titles between them, Federer and Nadal will be Djokovic’s closest challengers in Paris once again this year. Nadal (a.k.a. the ‘King of Clay’) is widely regarded as the greatest clay-court player of all time with a record nine French Open crowns – a record unlikely to ever be matched.
However, despite a 66-1 match winning record at Roland Garros (only Robin Soderling has beaten the Spaniard at the French back in 2009), Nadal does not go into this year’s event as the favourite.
And there’s good reason.
He looked good en route to the final in Madrid, before giving in to Murray for the first time on clay. In Rome, he was overpowered by Stan Wawrinka (also for the first time on the red stuff) while his Monte Carlo defeat came at the hands of Djokovic in the semi-final. The world number one’s biggest rival on clay is seemingly out of form.
But, with his quite astonishing record at Roland Garros, Nadal cannot be ruled out. His form this time last year was also sketchy, but he went on to overcome Djokovic in four sets in the French Open final. He has that added psychological advantage over his rivals, knowing that none of them have ever beaten him over five sets on clay.
Federer is one of just two men to have defeated Djokovic this year when he beat him in the Dubai final back in February
The biggest beneficiary from Nadal’s shock exit six years ago was Federer, who finally achieved glory at Roland Garros to complete his Career Slam. Federer has been the closest challenger to Djokovic this year, which goes some way to prove how dominant the Serb has been, given that he has beaten the Swiss in both the Indian Wells and Rome finals. Yet, the 17-times Grand Slam champion is one of just two men to have defeated Djokovic this year (the other being Ivo Karlovic) when he beat him in the Dubai final back in February.
However, Federer has not achieved Grand Slam success since he lifted his seventh Wimbledon title back in 2012, and has only reached one final since then: last year’s Centre Court showpiece in which, incidentally, he ran into Djokovic. It is also the third straight year that Federer goes to Paris without a Masters 1000 title to his name, but he has picked up three other titles in Brisbane, Dubai and Istanbul, the latter being on clay.
In Brisbane, Federer accumulated a 1,000th career victory when he beat Canadian Milos Raonic in the final, becoming only the third man after Lendl and Jimmy Connors to surpass the four-digit milestone. Competing next week will be his 62nd consecutive main draw Grand Slam appearance. He hasn’t missed one since 1999, and how he would dearly love to double his tally of French Open titles in a few Sundays time.
Murray, like Djokovic, is unbeaten on clay this year and is also unbeaten since he married long-term girlfriend Kim Sears at the start of April
World number three Murray is one man who has achieved victory over Nadal on the dirt this season, which bodes well for the Paris tournament. Twice a semi-finalist, including in last season’s comeback after back surgery, he picked up his first ever clay-court title in Munich last month before doubling that tally in Madrid just six days later. He, like Djokovic, is unbeaten on clay this year and is also unbeaten since he married his long-term girlfriend Kim Sears at the start of April.
Murray appears a different player on clay to what we’ve seen before. He may have an inferior head-to-head record against the aforementioned three – including seven straight defeats to Djokovic – but none of these have come on the dirt. He has never met Federer on clay either.
Congrats to Novak on a great start to the year.. However this egg today wasn't appreciated on easter?
— Andy Murray (@andy_murray) April 5, 2015
Murray knows what it takes to win a Grand Slam, but he will have to produce the tennis of his life to win the title in Paris – a title many people have long believed to be unachievable for him.
Although the winner will probably come from these four heavyweights, some other names could make a charge. Kei Nishikori is the most improved player over the last year, reaching a maiden Grand Slam final in New York back in September. However, his exposure to big match situations, US Open final excluded, is limited. Last year’s defeat to Nadal in Madrid is his only Masters final and he has never gone beyond round four in Paris. He did win the Barcelona Open on clay just a few weeks ago though, and no doubt has the ability to play deep into the second week.
As does Tomas Berdych, who lost to Djokovic in the Monte Carlo final a month ago. The new world number four reached the semi-final at Roland Garros back in 2010 and the quarter-final last year, and at last broke a 17-match losing streak against Nadal in Australian Open quarter-finals earlier this year. Always a dark horse at Grand Slams, the Czech is playing well enough to go far again.
World number eight David Ferrer, who will be playing in Nottingham’s ATP event next month before Wimbledon, is in with a shout
Wawrinka can also produce the tennis necessary to win big tournaments. Proof lies in Melbourne last year where he beat Djokovic and Nadal en route to his maiden major. He put together an excellent performance to knock the Spaniard out of the Italian Open last week too, so he knows what it takes to beat the top guys on the big stage.
World number eight David Ferrer, who will be playing in Nottingham’s ATP event next month before Wimbledon, is in with a shout as well. His success at Grand Slams has come predominantly at Roland Garros, where his only major final (2013) has been to date, as well as a 2012 semi-final and quarter-final appearance last year. On all three occasions, he ran into a rampant Nadal and succumbed.
The 2015 French Open is one of the most eagerly-anticipated in many years. There are question marks around the capabilities of Nadal but, unusually, the build-up is not all about the Spaniard this year. It’s Djokovic’s time. The Serb has probably his best chance to join an elite club by winning that final Slam. It is an opportunity to be grabbed with both hands.