Nadal stands in Djoker's way
Sharapova, Serena will hope their recent run on clay holds them in good stead
Novak Djokovic will arrive 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 Rafael Nadal.
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 semifinals.
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 number four 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.
“It’s there and a possibility to win four Grand Slams in a row and I am going to prepare as I prepare for any other big event with more focus,” Djokovic said after his 7-5, 6-3 defeat by Nadal in the Italian capital, a match that was too close to call for much of a brutal first set.
“The French Open is the only Grand Slam that I haven’t played in the finals so it’s a hard task but I feel good and I'm always motivated in France.”
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.
Another title for Nadal would leave little room for argument about the left-hander’s credentials as the greatest claycourt player of all time.
In the women’s section, based on form alone, Maria Sharapova enters the 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 number one 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. 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.