Four years ago, Novak Djokovic arrived at the French Open riding an unbelievable 39-match winning streak that dated back to the end of the 2010 season. What made that run even more remarkable is that it seemingly came out of nowhere. When it began, with two singles wins at the Davis Cup final in December 2010, Djokovic was ranked No. 3 in the world, behind both Roger Federer and Rafael Nadal.
In 2010, Djokovic didn’t win a single big title – in fact, he collected just two in total, matching his worst silverware haul since his breakthrough in 2006. But by May of the following season, the (then) 24 year old had already collected his second Grand Slam trophy at the Australian Open, and four Masters 1000 titles. Put in a different way: during those five early months of 2011, Novak Djokovic had nearly matched his big trophy haul from the five previous seasons combined. Along the way, he had beaten Rafael Nadal in four-straight Masters 1000 finals, the last two in consecutive weeks on clay. If you’re wondering how many times Novak Djokovic had beaten the Spaniard in a final of any kind before the year 2011, here’s your answer: zero.
It’s easy to forget that the hot-as-the-core-of-the-sun version of Novak Djokovic had yet to achieve the two dreams he had laid out for himself as a child: to win Wimbledon and to be the World Number 1. Djokovic had been the perennial third wheel behind the Federer-Nadal oligopoly since he broke onto the tennis scene, and nobody really expected a burst of such historical greatness from the Belgrade native after watching him struggle for most of 2010.
Now cut to the present. Novak Djokovic has won the last seven big events he’s entered: One Slam, one World Tour Finals, and five Masters 1000. Tuesday’s first-round victory over Jarkko Nieminen at the French Open makes it 24 straight in 2015. Djokovic is an overwhelming Number 1: he leads Roger Federer by 4,610 points on the ATP rankings. How big of a lead is that? Well, you get 2,000 points when you win a Grand Slam event, and you can probably guess how many you get from a Masters 1000 title. Oh, and there are 6,805 points between Djokovic and third-ranked Andy Murray.
Djokovic has finished the year as the World Number 1 on three separate occasions now, and he trails only Roger Federer in weeks occupying that ranking among active players. Djokovic has won eight Grand Slam tournaments, including a record five victories at the Australian Open and two at his beloved Wimbledon. He recently surpassed Roger Federer for second-most Masters 1000 titles all-time, with a staggering 24 trophies of that caliber, and appears likely to overtake Rafael Nadal’s career mark of 27. He has accomplished nearly everything on a tennis court – but there is one title that eluded him since that magical 2011 season: the French Open crown.
Roger Federer can most likely relate to Djokovic’s quest, since he endured one of his own from 2005 until 2009. Like Djokovic, he had dreamed of winning Wimbledon and being World Number 1. He had achieved both by 2004, and began collecting more accolades at a blistering pace. Yet the French Open remained elusive. By 2005, it was the lone Slam missing from his trophy cabinet, and the entire tennis world started to wonder when, not if, the Swiss would fulfill his destiny and claim the Career Slam.
The “when,” though, started to become an “if,” and the reason was simple: each year from 2005 to 2008, Federer’s quest ended at the hands of the greatest clay court player of all time, one Rafael Nadal. But in 2009, the unthinkable happened: the King of Clay lost at the French Open. In the fourth round, even. Federer took full advantage of the opportunity and completed his Career Slam. After four years of disappointments, Roger Federer caught his clay-covered white whale and cemented his perennial candidacy as the greatest male tennis player of all time.
In 2012, Djokovic arrived to the French Open much like Roger Federer in 2005: one title short of a Career Grand Slam. Like Federer, he was thwarted by Rafael Nadal. The same would happen in 2013, and again in 2014. History, as they say, likes to repeat itself.
What is different in 2015, then? The reasons go beyond Djokovic’s own historically great run of form. Rafael Nadal arrives to the capital of his clay kingdom having failed to win a European clay event for the first time since 2004, a time before his rule as King of Clay had begun. In fact, the Spaniard only made one European clay final, and his performance in that particular match left a lot to be desired. Andy Murray, who hadn’t won a clay title of any kind before this season, easily swept aside the Spaniard, losing only five games in the recent Madrid final.
In a fascinating twist of fate, Djokovic may get to face Nadal far earlier than expected at this year’s French Open: the pair are slated to meet in the quarterfinals. Oddly enough, it was a French Open quarterfinal match that inaugurated what is now one of the greatest rivalries in the sport: Djokovic withdrew from his very first match against Nadal at the 2006 French Open after just two sets had been played. Since then, the two have played each other 42 more times, including three semifinals and two finals at the French Open. Nadal won them all at Roland Garros.
Will this year be different? The King of Clay’s claim to the throne appears to be growing weaker, and Djokovic has arrived at Roland Garros not only on a run, but as a more experienced, mature and complete tennis player. Djokovic’s performances in the three biggest matches of the clay season (versus Nadal in Monte Carlo, David Ferrer and Roger Federer in Rome) were truly impressive: he didn’t concede more than five games in any of the six sets played. Djokovic’s focus, which has tended to waver in the big matches throughout his career, was impeccable. He played with the confidence of an elite athlete in his prime, and not only imposed his game, but his will on his rivals.
That same level of concentration will be needed if Djokovic faces the ultimate test in tennis next week in the shape of Rafael Nadal. The Spaniard’s nine titles in ten tries at Roland Garros, along with his staggering 89-1 record in five-set matches on clay never cease to be intimidating. But one thing is clear: Novak Djokovic has never been more ready to take on the challenge than he is right now. He has the experience, the momentum and his game has come together in a way that even surpasses what we saw in 2011.
With all of that being said, it’s best to invoke one of Rafael Nadal’s famous catchphrases: we gonna see, no? Obsessions are born out of the desire for the unattainable, and sport provides the perfect stage for these odysseys to play out. The inevitable can turn into the impossible in mere seconds, with the difference between dreams and nightmares being as slight as a ball landing inches inside or outside the confines of a tennis court.
We will see how Novak Djokovic fares in his quest. Everyone associated with the sport will be watching.