In his dreams, Novak Djokovic has already lifted the French Open trophy to make it four major tennis titles in a row. In reality, the No. 1-ranked player in the world has to overcome six-time champion Rafael Nadal on his favorite clay courts.
Djokovic didn’t lose in 2011 until June, took three major titles and rose to the top of the sport. The Wimbledon, U.S. Open and Australian Open champion from Serbia needs to win the French Open, which starts May 27 on the clay courts of Roland Garros in Paris, to become the first man to hold all four majors since Australia’s Rod Laver swept the titles in 1969. Laver, who also achieved the feat in 1962, and American Don Budge in 1938 are the only men to win four in a row in one calendar year. Serena Williams held four majors at the same time by winning in Melbourne in 2003.
“In my dream, I never looked at the scoreboard, but I did remember myself lifting the trophy,” Djokovic, 25, said in an interview at the Rome Masters. “I feel confident, I feel that I have enough qualities to win against anybody on this surface on a given day.”
Nadal is the 5-6 favorite at U.K. bookmaker William Hill. That means a successful $6 bet brings in $5 plus the original wager. Djokovic is 2-1 and third-ranked Roger Federer is 8-1.
“The toughest part is the very end, the back end of it,” Federer, the winner of a men’s record 16 Grand Slam singles titles, told reporters today at Roland Garros. “It’s an amazing achievement in itself to win three in a row. Four in a row is just another amazing step. I’ve been there twice. I was twice in the finals, twice a couple sets away.”
Today at Roland Garros, Djokovic was drawn in the same half as Federer, meaning he could meet the Swiss player in the semi-finals. The Serb plays his opening round against Italy’s Potito Starace, while Federer drew Germany’s Tobias Kamke. Nadal faces Simone Bolelli, also of Italy. The Spaniard may play Andy Murray in the last four. The fourth-ranked Briton starts against Japan’s Tatsuma Ito.
Djokovic, whose earnings from endorsements and prize money last year are estimated at $18 million by Forbes, beat Nadal all six times they played in 2011, and on the hard courts in Australia in January. Still, Nadal has won 18 of the 32 times they’ve played, including on the clay courts of Monte Carlo and Rome this season.
“Going into the French Open, it would be hard, no matter what Djokovic has proven over the last year, to ever think that Nadal wouldn’t be deserving of the favorite,” 1999 French Open champion Andre Agassi said in a World Team Tennis conference call a week before Roland Garros. “He is the Mount Everest of that surface,” he added.
Nadal, 25, is tied with Sweden’s Bjorn Borg with a men’s record six French Open singles titles. His only loss on the Parisian red clay was in the fourth round in 2009. The Spaniard has won 35 clay-court titles, the most of anyone currently playing on the ATP World Tour. Borg won 30 tournaments on the slow surface before he retired at the age of 26 in 1983.
“The two greatest clay-court players in my opinion are those two guys,” seven-time major singles champion John McEnroe said of Borg and Nadal. If Nadal “wins a seventh one, people are going to say he’s better, and there’s definitely an argument for that.”
After narrowly losing the longest Grand Slam final in history -- 5 hours, 53 minutes -- to Djokovic in Melbourne, Nadal took February off to recover from a shoulder injury. Although he struggled with a recurrence of knee tendinitis in March, he’s found his form on clay this spring in Europe.
The left-hander ended his losing streak against Djokovic last month in Monte Carlo before going on to win Barcelona. In the finals of Rome this week, he beat Djokovic for the second straight time.
“Winning is always important,” Nadal told reporters in Rome. “When you lose, you play with less calm, you have a little bit more doubts. I’m trying to play more aggressive than last year. I said when I lost some finals that you cannot expect to be perfect all the time. You don’t expect your opponent to be perfect all the time, too.”
Djokovic heads to Paris without a title on clay this season. He was beaten last year in the French Open by the 30-year-old Federer of Switzerland in the semifinals, which ended the longest winning streak since 1984 at 41 matches.
‘Need This Challenge’
“It’s been an incredible run for me since January 2011,” said Djokovic, who has yet to reach a Roland Garros final and lost to Nadal in Paris from 2006-2008. “I cannot complain. I want to be here, I need this challenge and now that I am here, I am working really hard to stay where I am.”
Growing up in war-torn Serbia has made him into the player he is now, Djokovic said. He turned 12 in 1999, when the then-Yugoslav region was bombed for 11 weeks in a NATO campaign to end former President Slobodan Milosevic’s crackdown on ethnic Albanians in Kosovo. During nightly air raids, Djokovic and his family hid in the basement of his grandfather’s apartment in Belgrade, the city where he practiced during the day.
Thirteen years later, Djokovic will carry his nation’s flag at the opening ceremony of the London Olympics on July 27.
“All the successful athletes that come from my country have had success mostly because of the mental strength, and overcoming really difficult times in the last 20 to 30 years,” Djokovic said. “We struggled very much with wars, embargoes and sanctions, economic and political issues and inflation.”
Shortly after winning Wimbledon and taking the top spot away from Nadal, Djokovic asked for advice from Pete Sampras, a 14-time major champion who spent a record 286 weeks atop the men’s rankings. Sampras told the ATP’s website he advised Djokovic that his focus should be “just keeping it simple.”
“It was valuable, because I can hear from his own experience what it took for him to stay No. 1 in the world for six consecutive years and how he handled the pressures and expectations and what he was doing,” Djokovic said. “I tried to take the best out of it, and implement that into my own life and career and see how it goes.”