Why Novak Djokovic Is the Safest Bet to Win the 2013 French Open

Christopher ImpigliaFeatured ColumnistJune 3, 2013

Djokovic lines up a forehand against Philipp Kohlschreiber
Djokovic lines up a forehand against Philipp KohlschreiberMatthew Stockman/Getty Images

With the top three seeds Novak Djokovic, Roger Federer and Rafael Nadal all making it into the quarterfinals of Roland Garros, the tournament sets itself for an intriguing conclusion. Although all three contenders will be looking to add to their already vast trophy collections, it’s Djokovic who seems the most prepared to bring home the glory.  

After spending seven months off the courts due to a severe injury to his knee, Nadal reached the finals in all eight tournaments he has played this year, winning six of them. This included the easy win over Federer in Rome last month. This is Nadal’s best-ever record in the months leading up to the French Open.

However, his form has since significantly dropped.

In the first round of the French, he struggled against unseeded Daniel Brands from Germany. According to Christopher Clarey of the New York Times, Brands watched replays of Nadal’s match against Robin Soderling in 2009 (Nadal’s one and only loss at the French) to formulate a game plan to give the Spaniard a serious scare.

As Clarey writes, in order to beat Nadal on clay, “an underdog must serve like a demigod, take enormous risks off the ground and…stay loose enough down the pressurized stretch to keep finding line after line.” According to Clarey, this ultimately deprives Nadal of what he thrives on: “time to react, time to construct, time to believe.”

Brands nearly managed what would have been one of the greatest upsets of all time, forcing Nadal to grind out a tough 4-6, 7-6 (4), 6-4, 6-3 victory.  

Brands’ display clearly inspired the Spaniard’s next opponents, exposing a mental weakness in Nadal previously unseen on clay. In the second round, the world’s current No. 4 met another obstacle in the form of unseeded Slovakian Martin Klizan. For the first time ever at Roland Garros, Nadal lost the first set in back-to-back matches. The final score was 4-6, 6-3, 6-3, 6-3 after almost three hours.

Rafa has certainly not been in the right frame of mind: In the post-match interview following the win against Klizan, Nadal blamed the weather for his lack of form and then complained about scheduling when his third-round match was postponed due to rain.

His next opponent, Italy’s Fabio Fognini, tried to capitalize on Nadal’s uncharacteristic fragility, adopting Brands’ tactics to try to force the issue. Although he avoided dropping a set, the Spaniard struggled in another nearly three-hour match with 40 unforced errors and only 24 winners, eventually winning 7-6 (5), 6-4, 6-4.

After a comfortable 6-4, 6-1, 6-3 victory in the fourth round against the Japanese sensation Kei Nishikori, Nadal looks to have finally found his form. The weather certainly played a part, and as the sun dried out Philippe-Chatrier Court, Nadal’s topspin forehands found their usual bounce and bite, quickly breaking down the 23-year-old from Japan.

Andrew Lilley of rolandgarros.com borrows from Mark Twain, writing, “Like a true champion, he [Nadal] is peaking at just the right time.” Although a tired Stanislas Wawrinka may not be able to capitalize on Nadal’s recent problems, the same can’t be guaranteed for Novak Djokovic, which we’ll get to later.

Yes, Roger Federer has won 17 Grand Slam tournaments, including the French Open. If this was not enough, briefly regaining the No. 1 position at 30 years of age after winning last year’s Wimbledon was certainly a sign that he may very well be tennis’ GOAT.

However, this year he has not fared as well.

The current No. 3 has managed to make it only to one final in six tournaments and was thoroughly dismantled by Nadal in Rome after adopting some brave serve-and-volley tactics. Federer furthermore was upset in Madrid by Nishikori after again losing to Nadal at Indian Wells, to Berdych in Dubai, Julien Benneteau in Rotterdam and Andy Murray at the Australian Open.

Despite this, Federer has been in solid form in Paris going into the quarterfinal matchup against Jo-Wilfried TsongaBesides the slip-up against Simon (pun intended), he blistered past Pablo Carreno-Busta, Somdev Devvarman and Benneteau without dropping a set.

One would bet that he has the chance to make the final. He certainly has the edge against his next potential opponents. Tsonga hasn’t beaten Federer since 2011, his win in Doha in 2012 coming via a rare walkover. David Ferrer, meanwhile, hasn’t beaten Federer in all 14 attempts.

Despite his chances on making the final, however, it is important to note that no top analyst has backed Federer to win the tournament. This year, he has simply not demonstrated his ability to play his best in big matches, against lower or higher ranked players.

The red clay won’t help either. It’s certainly not his best surface. The long rallies have never suited his style of play.

However he is, after all, Federer, and thus there is always the chance that he can pull off the seemingly impossible. But will the Federer Factor be enough? This year, it’s unlikely he can best Djokovic.

So what makes Djokovic the safest bet to win the 2013 French Open?

Two reasons:

Firstly, so far he hasn’t displayed any noteworthy negative performances like Nadal or Federer this year, let alone in this tournament.

Djokovic has already won three titles this year, beating Nadal on clay in Monte Carlo, Berdych in Dubai and Murray in Australia. Like Federer, he did undergo an embarrassing upset this year, in this case at the hands of Grigor Dimitrov in Madrid. However, he reasserted his dominance by beating Dimitrov in less than two hours in the third round in Paris.

Besides dropping a set against Philipp Kohlschreiber and struggling somewhat against David Goffin in the first round, Nole has otherwise seen himself comfortably through to the quarters. Next he’ll face 35-year-old Tommy Haas, who will no doubt be feeling the four-and-a-half-hour five-setter against John Isner in the third round.

A semifinal matchup with Nadal will no doubt see Djokovic as the fresher of the two, both mentally and physically. In addition, the tactics Brands employed so effectively, causing Nadal’s weakness so far in the tournament to surface, is exactly how Nole defeated the Spaniard in the past. 

Who can forget the incessant, aggressive barrage of groundstrokes that broke down Nadal at the classic five-set final of the 2012 Australian Open? If you have forgotten, you can find the full match here. Otherwise, check out the highlights to the right. And remember, this was when Nadal was at his best. That certainly is not the case at this year’s French Open, as we already have seen. 

Secondly, Djokovic has more to prove.

Nadal has already cemented himself as arguably the greatest clay court player of all time as he chases his eighth French Open title. By winning six titles already this year, he has silenced whomever doubted his return to greatness following his serious injury. A loss in Paris this year, however rare this might be, would not mar what has already been a successful comeback and positive start to the season.

Federer, on the other hand, will certainly be looking to remind the world that at 31 years of age he still has much more to offer, having failed to win any titles so far this year. A loss on clay, however, is not something he is unfamiliar with. This year, his nonchalant style of play might indicate that with the grass courts of Wimbledon fast approaching, he might already have his sights elsewhere. 

But it's easy to forget that Djokovic, the world’s No. 1, has never won the French Open. Whereas both Federer and Nadal have both won on the Parisian clay, Nole has yet to complete his career Grand Slam.

Ultimately, when dealing with players of this stature, all three of whom have dominated the men’s game for the last decade, the slightest physical and metal edge is what separates the winner from the loser.

Djokovic, simply put, has demonstrated so far that he is the fresher and more confident of the top three contenders. Unlike Nadal, he’s been unaffected by injury, weather, bad results or bad scheduling, and unlike Federer, he has already begun the year in a successful fashion.

So can Nole be the second person ever to beat Nadal in Paris? Except for Nadal's record on clay, all the signs point in this direction.  

But because tennis has proven capable of delivering surprises time and time again, I’ll refrain from saying, “Told ya so!” when the seemingly inevitable happens.

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