Djokovic is ready. If tennis were mythology, he would be Mars, the Roman god of war. He has the mentality and the skills to continue his great run, and now is the time to see how far he can outpace the field.
But there are several obstacles that will present his most formidable challenge. He wants the Grand Slam’s final cup, but he will have to seize it.
Djokovic’s challenges in Rome and Paris are similar to those faced by heroic character Robert Langdon in Dan Brown’s best-selling Angels and Demons. Djokovic must also use his mind to out-think and anticipate his obstacles and adversaries.
The red clay at Rome is a little faster than at Roland Garros, but at both venues Djokovic can use his groundstrokes to overpower his opponents. He is a fabulous hard-court player because he can react better to a faster pace than his opponents.
On clay, Djokovic can use this advantage by hitting earlier, flatter and harder to out-muscle his opponents. It is the way for him to thwart the clay’s unique way of producing a higher bounce that allows his opponents to set up for their next shot.
He must not stand back and be content to trade high bouncing strokes, but must eliminate the comfort and slower rhythm of the clay-court player. His quick-strike capability can disrupt their timing. He has the reflexes and strokes to hit on the rise and pressure his opponent.
If Djokovic is to become a dominant clay-court player over the next few years, he must use his talents to reshape the way the game is played on clay. Without his aggressiveness, he is still very good, but would be giving his opponents an opening.
He has the ability to be a master of clay on his own terms.
The winds of fortune are constantly shifting directions. In 2011, Djokovic rode his talent behind a gust of motivation, desire and clutch play. His last two Grand Slam wins took advantage of the smallest breaks to breeze past Roger Federer and Rafael Nadal.
This year, he seems to be hitting into the wind. Opponents are toughening up and preparing better, his serve has been more erratic, and he has had to deal with personal loss.
Djokovic has the mantle of being the No. 1 player, an ambassador to his home country Serbia and hero to his loyal fans. He willingly embraces this challenge, but this can be professionally taxing as well.
Tennis legend Pete Sampras, who greatly admires Djokovic, discussed the added weight of Djokovic’s desire to play on behalf of his country.
As long as Djokovic has the positive energy to draw upon his followers for strength, rather than feel its burden, he will continue to play with even greater purpose.
He is getting his second wind to carry him into the French Open.
Even Djokovic cannot win all his battles on talent alone. He will need to adapt to the ebb and flow of each match. His adjustments on clay will be critical to oppose the wave of new tactics his opponents continue to bring.
The ATP field is a variety of tough-minded competitors who have studied video and consulted with coaches to train for overthrowing Djokovic.
Djokovic will learn from his defeat to Roger Federer in the 2011 French Open semifinal. He had been so dominant in compiling a 43-game winning streak, he naturally felt more reluctant to change his tactics mid-match. But even trust in a game plan can be a symptom of stubbornness.
Will Djokovic be prepared for blustery conditions, drop shots and change-of-pace rhythms from Federer and other players? Federer’s clinic at Madrid was a lesson in adapting while attacking, but Djokovic needs to apply this principle to his own game and in his own way.
Djokovic's domination will require evolution to adapt with tennis' changing conditions, technology and opponents. He must not remain static with his tactics if he is to quench his thirst for a French Open title.
Until further notice, all French Open titles must go through Nadal. Djokovic defeated him for titles in 2011 at Madrid and Rome, but will need to forge an even more improved game out of the flames of his own intensity and preparation.
Nadal is a French Open legend with proven numbers and titles that may never be matched. His clay-court mystique is near-infallible, given one surface and its master.
What would you enjoy most about visiting Rome?
The 2012 Monte Carlo encounter is commonly cited as a return of Nadal’s confidence and mental strength.
However, his success was a shift in execution. He hit a few more backhands up the line. He used his in-and-out forehand to hit flatter, faster shots when he sensed the right moments to attack. He even surprised Djokovic by uncorking a second-serve ace out wide from the deuce court.
How will Djokovic counter? If he gets the opportunity to oppose Nadal in Rome, he will be able to make his own adjustments. He can attack with occasional backhands up the line and come in more often behind some of his cross-court forehands.
Above all, he must control the pace of the rallies and force Nadal to hit more defensive shots. If he controls most of the rallies with side-to-side pace, he will likely win. If he trades from the baseline, and allows Nadal to have time and options with his forehand, it will be a tough day.
Djokovic must see this as his opportunity to win matches (and not get caught up in history). He is a gifted punisher from the baseline with a champion’s heart and a strategist’s mind.
If he continues to improve on his success, they may rename the fourth planet in his honor.