Discussing the men’s field at the French Open has been rather a dull and predictable exercise for nearly a decade now as the tournament has become an annual showcase for inarguably the greatest clay court player of all time, Rafael Nadal (the only one who many challenge Nadal for clay supremacy is Bjorn Borg but that’s a bit of a stretch).
And while he’s still a slight favorite to claim this year’s French championship, there isn’t the sense that it’s a foregone conclusion like in years past. This is due to one – and only one – factor: Novak Djokovic.
During Djokovic’s historic 2011 campaign, a year in which he claimed three legs of the Grand Slam, with victories over Nadal in the finals of Wimbledon and the US Open, he and Nadal did not face off in Paris as Djokovic was stunned by Roger Federer in the semis that year.
In 2012, Nadal had regained some confidence against Djokovic by beating him twice in the clay season and again in the French Open final in four sets. So it appeared that Nadal had at least come close to regaining equal footing with Djokovic.
But then Nadal got injured, missing the entire second half of last year and we never got a real sense of where their extraordinary rivalry was headed (Nadal leads overall 19-15).
The two best players in the world finally faced off again a month ago in Monte Carlo, for the first time since last year’s French final. In Monaco, Djokovic’s adopted home country, Nadal was overwhelmed and easily defeated in straight sets, 6-2 ,7-6. While Nadal was still not in top form yet – after all he had only re-emerged in February after more than seven months away – it was still obvious that Djokovic’s game gives Nadal fits.
The main reason for Djokovic getting into Nadal’s psyche is the power and variety of Djokovic’s backhand. The key to Nadal’s dominance over Roger Federer, and nearly every other right-handed player for that matter, is the vicious, relentless topspin crosscourt missiles that Nadal sends to the backhand side. This almost always results in his opponent being worn down – just ask Federer.
But Djokovic is different in that he not only hits his backhand with more authority than Nadal is accustomed to, he can also redirect Nadal’s shots better than anyone in the sport. In fact, Djokovic’s down-the-line backhand is his most effective weapon in his arsenal and when he’s able to consistently hit this shot to Nadal’s backhand it gives him control of the point. And this was the case in the aforementioned Monte Carlo match, as Nadal was constantly pinned in the backhand side because of Djokovic’s peerless down-the-line shots.
The other area where Djokovic is better than everyone else is the return of serve. While not blessed with a particularly powerful serve of his own, Djokovic is now routinely mentioned in the same sentence with Jimmy Connors and Andre Agassi as possessing the best return game of anyone in the Open era.
… so if this column reads as a preview of a final and not the tournament itself you’re not mistaken. But the problem is Nadal and Djokovic won’t meet in the final. Because of the French Open’s stubborn refusal to seed Nadal at least second, the draw has these two meeting in the semifinals.
If they do indeed meet in the semis – Djokovic’s path is more difficult as he’ll have a likely tough match in the third round, facing off against Grigor Dmitrov, the rising star who defeated Djokovic in Italy a couple of weeks ago – it’ll obviously be a championship-like atmosphere. And while it’s hard, actually almost foolhardy, to bet against Nadal at the French, I’d put it at even money right now on who would triumph.
With Nadal and Djokovic both taking up residence in one half of the draw, there are obviously many players feeling lucky. No one more so than Roger Federer. Federer has the easiest of draws, save for a possible quarterfinal clash with Jo-Wilfried Tsonga. Tsonga has beaten Federer on a big stage before, at Wimbledon in 2011, so on paper that looks intriguing. But then again, the failure of the French players to play their best in Paris is legendary.
Federer would likely play either Tomas Berdych or David Ferrer in the semifinals. Berdych is a rough match up for Federer. Just like Juan Martin Del Potro (who unfortunately is missing the French Open because of injury) Berdych is blessed with an overpowering ground game that can give Federer tons of trouble. In fact, Berdych has twice beaten Federer in Grand Slam play, most recently at the 2012 US Open. While playing against Ferrer is never an easy task due to his relentless style, he has never beaten Federer in 14 attempts.
Because Nadal looks to be back to near 100 percent form on his beloved dirt and the fact that Djokovic may be hindered by a troublesome ankle, I look for Nadal to barely get by and make it to the final to face Federer; it’d be an incredible fifth matchup in the final at Roland Garros for the duo.
But I also won’t be surprised at all if Djokovic ends Nadal’s Paris dominance. That is what's different about this year’s French Open.
NOTES: In addition to Del Potro being a no show in Paris, Andy Murray withdrew from the event last week because of a stubborn back injury that he’s been battling for some time. Murray is clearly – and wisely - preparing himself for the tournament that matters most to him, Wimbledon. And Murray would likely have been a non-factor at the French.
With all due respect to Murray, and he was clearly the second best player of the world in 2011, having reached the last three Slam finals and claiming his first final triumph at the US Open, it’s still a mistake to label him as part of the so-called Big Four. After all, Murray still has only one Slam to his name. A more accurate description may be the Big 3.5 or the Big Two (Nadal and Djokovic) and the Other Two (Federer and Murray).
If Djokovic were to win the French he would complete the career Grand Slam. This is obviously a hugely motivating factor for the top-ranked Serb. If so, he’d be the fourth player to achieve such an extraordinary feat in the last 14 years. The others who have done it since 1999 are Andre Agassi, Roger Federer and Rafael Nadal. Prior to this, the last person to achieve a career Grand Slam was Rod Laver – and he won the calendar year Grand Slam twice, a feat that will likely never be duplicated.