Novak Djokovic's Biggest Challenges Going into Clay-Court Season

Merlisa Lawrence Corbett@@merlisaFeatured ColumnistApril 11, 2014

Novak Djokovic's Biggest Challenges Going into Clay-Court Season

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    Novak Djokovic is coming off of back-to-back wins at Indian Wells and the Sony Open. This makes him the player with the most momentum going into the ATP European clay-court stretch.

    However, as the tour shifts to the red dirt, Djokovic may find himself on less-than-solid ground. Despite his 16-2 record and lead in this year's points race, Djokovic heads into the trickiest part of the tour for him.

    Even after a convincing straights sets win over Rafael Nadal in Miami, Djokovic will be the underdog on clay. 

    Within striking distance of Nadal's No. 1 ranking, Djokovic may have to dethrone the king of clay to recapture the top spot. That's just one of several challenges facing Djokovic going into the clay-court season.

5. Avoiding the Upset

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    Sometimes a player puts so much emphasis on achieving a big goal that they lose sight of smaller obstacles in the way.

    Remember Serena Williams' first-round upset at the 2012 French Open?  

    The depth on the ATP tour continues to improve. Drawing a talented clay-court player in the early rounds could spell trouble for Djokovic. To feel comfortable and confident enough on clay to take out Nadal, Djokovic needs to avoid the upset in early rounds in tournaments leading up to Roland Garros. 

4. Remaining Focused

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    Djokovic is among one of the more consistently focused players on tour. However, sometimes in big matches, he presses too hard and games, sets and eventually matches can slip away.

    In the Australian Open semifinal against Stanislas Wawrinka, Djokovic missed a routine volley at match point. 

    At Indian Wells, Djokovic spoke with reporters about how he sometimes lacks focus. In the fourth round he dropped a set, 3-6, to Alejandro Gonzalez, a player who at the time was ranked outside of the Top 80.

    In an interview published on the BNP Paribas Open website, Djokovic said, "I obviously cannot allow myself to have these particular concentration lapses in the match at this level."

3. Ghost of 2013 French Open

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    Djokovic suffered one of the most painful defeats of his career at the 2013 French Open. It was another tough five-set loss to Nadal6-4, 3-6, 6-1, 6-7(3), 9-7.

    It was an emotionally draining loss for Djokovic, whose longtime coach, Jelena Gencic, died the week before. Gencic had been more like family to Djokovic. Shortly before she died, she reportedly told Djokovic that she wanted a picture of him holding the trophy from the French Open, the one Grand Slam he has yet to win. 

    Following the loss, a dejected Djokovic told Kate Battersby of Roland, "I wanted this title so much, so I am disappointed. It's not the end of the world. The feeling is not great at the moment, but I have years in front of me. I will come back, and I will keep on trying to win it."

    How will Djokovic respond? Will he harness the disappointment and play his way to a title? Or will the ghost of the 2013 French Open haunt him forever? 

2. Tour Shifts to Clay

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    Novak Djokovic has an career winning percentage above 70.0 on all surfaces. However, his 77.4 percent record on clay is far worse than his 82.6 percent winning record on hard courts.

    Meanwhile, Djokovic's archrival, Nadal, has a ridiculous 93.4 winning percentage on clay. That presents a major challenge for Djokovic going into the clay-court season. Djokovic plays better than most on clay. But Nadal plays better than everybody. 

    Then you throw in clay-court specialists like David Ferrer, and Djokovic could run into a rough time on the softer surface.

    Clay, a four-letter word and a cursed surfaced for Djokovic.  

1. Rafael Nadal

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    There's another four-letter word that spells trouble for Djokovic: R-a-f-a.

    Nadal's 93.4 winning percentage on clay is as close to perfect as any player gets on any surface. Nadal is also 5-0 against Djokovic at the French Open, the Grand Slam title that eludes the Serb.

    No matter how well Djokovic performs on clay, Nadal plays better.