Novak Djokovic is out to extend his perfect season at the French Open, and that has defending champion Rafael Nadal looking back for inspiration.
Djokovic, who turns 24 in two days during the opening session of Roland Garros, has won 37 straight tennis matches to start the year, threatening John McEnroe’s 1984 record streak of 42 victories. The Serb will take the top spot in men’s tennis away from Nadal, the five-time French Open champion, should he reach the final in two weeks.
“I’m just most happy about the game I have this year on clay -- the way I’m striking the ball and the way I’m so self-confident,” Djokovic told a news conference in Rome after he beat Nadal for his seventh tournament championship of the year. “I always knew I could beat the top players, but now I have the confidence to do it.”
The Serb will play his opening round against No. 71 Thiemo de Bakker of the Netherlands. Nadal will face No. 39 John Isner, the American who is best known for playing the longest match in tennis history at last year’s Wimbledon.
Djokovic’s victory at the Rome Masters was only the second time he’d beaten the 24-year-old Spaniard, the best clay-court player of his generation, on his favorite surface.
Djokovic isn’t favored with bookmakers. Nadal, who said he is watching recordings of past matches to try to recover his old form, is the 8-11 favorite to win the French Open at U.K. bookmaker William Hill Plc, meaning a successful $11 bet would return $8 plus the original stake. Djokovic is the second-favorite at 11-8, while 29-year-old Roger Federer of Switzerland, 24-year-old Andy Murray of the U.K. and 22-year-old Juan Martin del Potro of Argentina are 14-1.
Federer, who is scheduled to play Djokovic in the semifinals, begins his French Open campaign against Spain’s Feliciano Lopez. Murray, who may play Nadal in the last four, faces a qualifier in his first round.
Going back to the Davis Cup finals in December, the second-ranked Djokovic hasn’t lost in 39 matches.
“It probably all started from there,” he said in an interview in Monte Carlo last month. “It was the best feeling that I have experienced on a tennis court ever. Individually, I won two Grand Slams, but this can be rated as my biggest achievement of my career.”
Djokovic can equal McEnroe’s streak with a semifinal spot, while a title will tie him with Argentina’s Guillermo Vilas for the longest win streak in the Open era at 46 straight, set in 1977.
“Records are there to be broken,” McEnroe, seven-time major champion, said this week on a conference call. “Given the fact there is more competition, more athleticism, more depth in the sport, his record is even more impressive than mine.”
Nadal is seeking to tie Bjorn Borg’s Open-era record of six Roland Garros singles championships. He won his 31st clay-court title last month in Barcelona, the most of any player on the ATP World Tour.
Nadal, also the reigning Wimbledon and U.S. Open champion, started the season with a shot at becoming the first man since Rod Laver in 1969 to hold all four Grand Slam titles at the same time. Instead, Nadal left the Australian Open in tears after a ruptured thigh muscle hampered his movement in a quarterfinal loss to Spain’s David Ferrer.
Djokovic won his second major title in Melbourne and has since defeated Nadal in four finals. Nadal’s loss to Djokovic in Madrid was the Spaniard’s first on the slow surface since Robin Soderling of Sweden handed him his only defeat at Roland Garros in the fourth round in 2009.
“Anyone, no matter what sport they are playing, can’t rest on their laurels,” McEnroe said. “Nadal came off one of the greatest years in Open tennis history, and now all of a sudden he finds himself sort of befuddled and baffled at what to do against Djokovic right now.”
Djokovic will take over the top spot in the ATP rankings from Nadal by making his first French Open final even if Nadal wins. That would make the Serb the first player other than Nadal or Federer to hold the top ranking since Andy Roddick of the U.S. in February 2004.
“You see the court coverage that he has, I think it’s unparalleled in tennis,” Andre Agassi, a former French Open champion and No. 1-ranked player, said in an interview. “He’s starting to get a lot more confidence with his offensive skills and his serve is now no longer a liability.”
Djokovic leads the men’s tour this season with 43 percent of his return games won and is second to Croatia’s Ivo Karlovic with wins in 89 percent of his service games.
Nadal, who had a fever during the Madrid and Rome tournaments, said his chance will come, and that it would be “impossible” for Djokovic’s run to go on forever.
“The champion in my opinion is not only able to win every week; it is when they are able to wait at the right moments,” Nadal said after the Rome final. “I am waiting every week, trying to find solutions.”
Djokovic has now beaten Nadal 11 times in 27 meetings, but has yet to win a best-of-five match in a major against the Spaniard. Nadal has won all five of their Grand Slam encounters, including three at Roland Garros, where Djokovic has yet to take a set off him. Nadal may have to change his strategy to beat Djokovic in Paris this year, McEnroe said.
“Perhaps taking a few more chances, trying to get Djokovic on the defensive a little bit more, whereas it appeared he was allowing him to dictate play and banking on him missing and not being consistent enough,” McEnroe said.