Roger Federer knows all about coming into Paris on top of the world and being sent out on a virtual stretcher.
In 2006 and 2007 he came into the French Open with designs on becoming the first man since Rod Laver in 1969 to win four straight Grand Slams. Then he ran right into brick wall with a thunderous left hook—Rafa Nadal—getting bullied by Nadal in two four-set losses in those finals.
Federer was close to taking the 2006 final to a fourth set but lost it 7-4 in the tiebreaker. He managed to win the second set in 2007 but went down 6-4 in the fourth set in a match that really wasn’t as close as the set scores indicated.
Still, the Swiss put himself in a position to pull off the feat twice in his career after taking Wimbledon and the U.S. Open and Australian Open titles consecutively.
Few men can claim that.
But another man can this year—Novak Djokovic, who has beaten Nadal in the finals of the last three majors. Of course, none of them were outdoors on red clay, and don't think that doesn't matter a heck of a lot.
Federer discussed with reporters the challenges that he, Nadal and Djokovic have had to endure in trying to win four straight Grand Slam titles:
"It's an amazing achievement in itself to win three in a row," Federer told reporters in Paris on Friday. "Four in a row is just another amazing step. I think the toughest part is the back end of it. I was twice in the finals, twice a couple sets away. Okay, I mean, I was playing Rafa, which doesn't make it a whole lot easier. But it's easier to maybe start with the French in this era and then finishing it on the hard court.
But it's amazing for tennis right now that we have Novak in this situation again where we had Rafa [trying to do it] at the Australian Open [in 2011]. But the hard part is every point you play, every game you play, the pressure you face, and just answering the questions time and time again. It's fun because you're talking about the highest of accomplishments. But at the end of the day, you just like to play the matches and not talk about it that much." (h/t to Bloomberg News)
Nadal also had a great chance at the 2010 Australian Open. Unfortunately, he was injured at the start of his quarterfinal match against David Ferrer and limped his way to a defeat. Such opportunities do not come along too often. Nadal showed in winning the 2011 Australian Open what could have been—but wasn't.
So many things have to go right to win four straight majors.
Form matters but so does health and circumstance. For Nadal, beginning his run at Wimbledon might have worked better because he could attempt to complete it in Paris, where he has only lost one match in the past six years (to Robin Soldering in 2009).
For Federer, beginning anywhere but Roland Garros would have been the ticket, since in five-set matches on clay against the Spaniard, he eventually gets worn down, hence his five defeats to Nadal in Paris.
And for Djokovic—who has never reached the French Open finals and had Federer stop his match winning streak at 43 last year's semis—ending anywhere but Paris would be the ticket, too, as he's murderous on hard courts and showed last year in winning Wimbledon that, well, he has learned to fit a medium-speed grass-court game into his hard-court style.
Djokovic is once again on Federer's side of the draw in Paris. And, since his epic six-hour win over Nadal in January to repeat as Australian Open champion, Djokovic has been questioned time and time again as to whether he is up to the task of going where only two men have gone. Only Laver (twice in 1962 and 1969) and the great American player Don Budge in 1938 made it all the way around the Grand Slam block.
The proper term for that feat would be "massive historical achievement."
Djokovic knows what's at stake but tries to treat this year's event no differently than past French Opens.
"Well, it would definitely mean the world to me from that perspective, but I haven't thought about that too much because I do not want to put too much pressure on myself," Djokovic said. "I don't need any more at this moment because I already have enough. I try to approach this tournament this year as any other year and try to prepare myself equally well. So that's going to be my mindset." (h/t to digibet.info)
By virtue of his win over Djokovic in the Rome Masters finals, Nadal retook the No. 2 ranking from Federer and ended up on the opposite side of the draw from Djokovic.
Federer plays the Serbian tougher than he plays Nadal on clay. But no player on the planet plays tougher than Nadal on the crushed red brick. And no player ever—not even the great Bjorn Borg, who also owns six Roland Garros titles—has wracked up as many consecutive fantastic seasons on clay as has the reigning Roland Garros champion.
Consider this: not only has Nadal been the undisputed king of Paris since he first played the tournament in 2005, but he has also put up huge numbers at three other significant red clay events: Monte Carlo (eight titles), Barcelona (seven titles) and Rome (six titles).
That’s why, even though Djokovic has proven himself to be more of a clutch performer in their last three Slam meetings, there is no doubt who the favored will be should they meet in the finals.
"I think Rafael playing for his seventh title is the favorite," Federer said. "I think he lost only two sets between Rome, Monte Carlo, and Barcelona, so that's a pretty good start. Then he's playing for his seventh title, so no discussion. We're crazy to even talk about this. Some people might say he's not the favorite, but to me he's the favorite. I played him so many times here. I know how incredible he can be here in Roland Garros. As for Novak with all his results lately, he's one of the big favorites. Likewise for me with everything I accomplished. But for me it would be Rafa, Novak, and me third position."