French Open money still on Djokovic
The second week of the year’s second major is underway, and as usual the big names in men’s tennis are all positioned well.
That’s hardly surprising when you consider the consistency of the game’s elite over the last four or five years.
And (again, as usual) it appears that it’s ultimately a two-horse race between Novak Djokovic and Rafael Nadal.
But can another player step up and stop the usual ‘Djokadal’ quinella?
On first analysis the answer is simply no. But if you think back to this time last year, Djokovic had not lost a match all season and was an unbackable favourite before Roger Federer took him down in four sets in the semi-finals.
Federer’s genius of course makes him a threat in any tournament, and he has moved through the draw with usual efficiency, albeit dropping a set or two along the way. He is the people’s champ and probably the most popular player in history – but it’s now over two years since he won his last slam, and the red dirt of Paris was always his least likely stage on which to deliver.
He’ll make the semis, but that’s as far as he’ll go.
Andy Murray, the last of the ‘big four’, has been troubled by a back complaint during the first week but has still moved smartly through to the final 16. I also expect him to make the semis, but a showdown with Nadal is likely to leave the Brit still seeking an inaugural slam win.
So, if all goes to plan, the third and final Sunday at Roland Garros will pit the two best players on the planet against each other for the 33rd time overall (Nadal leads 18-14) and for the fourth consecutive grand slam final.
Rightly, Nadal is the favourite given his form and brilliant record here.
In a lovely shade of magenta he has dispatched all comers with typical ease and appears as ruthless as ever. Motivation is never an issue for Nadal, who equals Lleyton Hewitt as the most competitive player I have ever seen – but he has an extra carrot dangling in front of him this year, with a chance to become the only man in the open era to have won seven French Open titles.
Djokovic though, has timed his run perfectly on the clay this season and is my pick to win.
The Serb is a wily customer and a fierce competitor. There’s no doubt he wanted to head into this tournament under the radar (or as under the radar as you can get when you’ve won the last three slams).
Last year I felt that the burden of entering Roland Garros undefeated hampered his performance through weight of expectation.
No such burden this time around, though. He is peaking at the right time.
Equally important, his game matches up well with the Spaniard on clay. His height coupled with the world’s best backhand helps him negotiate Nadal’s cobra-spitting top-spin forehand. His scrambling and flexibility will also see him retrieve balls others simply cannot. He is also more aggressive than Nadal on returns and his depth of shot will give him better court position.
Finally, he also has the psychological advantage over five sets, having beaten Nadal in their three most recent grand slam finals – most recently that near-six-hour epic in Melbourne.
If he wins, he will be the first man since Rod Laver in 1968 to hold all four grand slams at once, a feat so remarkable that it has proven elusive to all other modern greats.
Personally, I think he can do it. But whoever wins will be made to earn it