A question of clay

A question of clay

Novak Djokovic has won everything but the French Open and he will continue his quest this week

A question of clay

Respecting the schedule that Novak Djokovic laid out in January, it is now time for dessert. So will he finally get to taste some at the French Open?

Many a great tennis champion has skidded to a halt at Roland Garros. Those who have tried, then tried some more and ultimately failed to win the world’s premier clay-court event include Pete Sampras, Jimmy Connors, Bill Tilden, John McEnroe, Pancho Gonzales, John Newcombe, Stefan Edberg and Djokovic’s coach, Boris Becker.

“I lost to guys who were better than me on clay; there is no mystery,” Becker said in an interview last week.

Becker, at his best on faster surfaces, reached three French Open semifinals but never won any tour-level tournament on clay. Djokovic is in a different class as one of the most successful clay-court players in history.

His 79.7 percent career winning percentage on the surface is the fifth best in the Open era for players with more than 200 matches. And since the French championships became open to non-French players in 1925, no other man has had as impressive a record as Djokovic in Paris without finding a way to win the title at least once.

“He definitely needs it; there’s no doubt,” said Jim Courier, a two-time French Open champion. “Novak would not be considered the greatest player of all time, which he has a chance to be, if he’s not able to win it.”

The elastic Serbian — the world’s No 1 player by a mathematical margin equivalent to the Rift Valley — has been a French Open finalist three times in the last four years. He lost in four sets in 2012 and in 2014 to the greatest clay-court player of all time, Rafael Nadal, which was deflating but perfectly comprehensible.Djokovic then obliterated the nine-time champion Nadal in the quarterfinals last year only to lose the big one, in an earthshaking upset, to Stan Wawrinka, who was in a state of unanticipated grace.

But Djokovic has also reached four semifinals and two quarterfinals at Roland Garros since he made his debut in 2005 shortly after his 18th birthday.No man has been so close for so long without reward — not even Roger Federer, who reached three finals but only one semifinal before finally winning in 2009.

No, Djokovic is all on his lonesome in the frustration department. He is the only man in the top 10 in career French Open match victories without the title. Though he is clearly still in his prime (he turns 29 on Sunday) and in the midst of another dominant season, the clock — biological and otherwise — is ticking.

Federer, Andres Gomez, Andre Agassi and Wawrinka share the men’s French Open record, all having won the title for the first time on their 11th attempt.This will be Djokovic’s 12th try. Although he has proved himself remarkably adept in recent seasons at shedding midmatch and midtournament mental baggage and finding the lines when it really counts, Roland Garros at this stage seems a psychological challenge of a very different magnitude.

“He lost in the French to Stan last year, and I think the second practice at Wimbledon, I organised another practice with Stan because of that,” Becker said. “I told Novak: ‘That was clay. This is grass. It’s a new tournament, and you’ve got to practice with the guy who gave you a very disappointing loss.’ And Novak did it, and once they practiced, they joked about it, and it was over.

“Paris was over. So there are ways about it, how you overcome situations. But in order to overcome them, you have to face them. You have to talk about them. You have to deal with it. You can’t run away.”

Opportunities to talk about Roland Garros are legion, of course. Along with an Olympic gold medal, the French Open is the only major tennis prize Djokovic lacks, and unlike the gold medal, it is a trophy he has to chase every spring.

“I think he has put too much out there in public the last few years as to what it means to him,” Courier said. 

“I think one of Nadal’s great strengths is he’s always played every point so individually, let alone tournaments. Obviously the majors mean more to everybody, but Nadal is able to compartmentalise so well historically. So is Federer, and I think Novak is a little more of an emotion-based guy. He thrives on that energy, and I think as a result of that he’s been honest to his credit, but maybe to a fault.”

This year, the questions started in earnest the night he won the Australian Open in January and compared himself to a wolf on a hill fighting off the pack below.“But wolf needs to eat a lot of different meals to get to Paris,” Djokovic said. “Paris is a dessert.”

Since then, Djokovic has dined out on American hardcourts, sweeping Indian Wells and Miami. Even with a title in Madrid this month, there has been some clay-court indigestion, including an opening-round loss to Jiri Vesely in Monte Carlo and a 6-3, 6-3 defeat to Andy Murray in the final in Rome.

Both losses came with caveats. In Monte Carlo, Djokovic was flat after a draining period on and off the court. In Rome, he already had fought through Nadal in a taxing two-set quarterfinal and Kei Nishikori in an even more grueling three-set semifinal before playing with a sore ankle against Murray on very little rest.

With Djokovic’s quest, the French Open, which begins Sunday, already was interesting. Now, with Murray, Nadal and Nishikori all in the mix, it is fascinating.

When Djokovic returns to Paris this time, he returns with the memory of the touching and extended ovation he received after last year’s loss in the final from a tough and unpredictable audience: the French crowd on center court.

“I think he goes with good feelings to Paris,” Becker said. “The loss to Stan gave him more than he anticipated, and I think that that carries in the soul a long time, how the crowd really appreciated his sportsmanship at the end and his fair play.

“Obviously, Novak knows what is the task, but you go day by day, practice by practice, match by match and then take it from there. I think the overriding feeling is a good one. He’s looking forward to the challenge.”And perhaps — at last — his just dessert.

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