Each year, Novak Djokovic is getting closer to fulfilling his dream of winning the French Open. Monte Carlo is the first big stop, and maybe the unconscious motive for his residency there: It's a perpetual reminder that the grueling road to Paris is long rallies, brick-stained socks and cruel heartbreak.
Monte Carlo has been a distinguished member of the Clay Triple Crown. If Rome is personified as Power and Paris is Prestige, then Monte Carlo is Beauty, She is all elegance and royalty, nestled high above the picturesque sea and crashing waves. And it's not easy to win her hand.
Winning one career title at the Monte Carlo Masters is to claim historical glory. These are history's best clay-court players milling around the gardens of Chateau de Clay. Winning it twice identifies the legends. This is the golden invitation inside the hall of clay-court fame, where only the elite clay champions gain entrance.
Djokovic has the chance to enter the doorway and shake hands with all of the clay kings, if he can win two more enormous titles.
Monte Carlo: The Double Champions
Since the Open era of tennis began in 1968, there have been 10 players who have won the Monte Carlo Masters at least twice in their careers. All of them proved to be clay-court legends:
- Ilie Nastase 3 titles (1971-73)
- Bjorn Borg 3 titles (1977, 79-80)
- Guillermo Vilas 3 titles (1976, 81-82)
- Mats Wilander 2 titles (1983, 87)
- Ivan Lendl 2 titles (1985, 88)
- Sergi Bruguera 2 titles (1991, 93)
- Thomas Muster 3 titles (1992, 95-96)
- Gustavo Kuerten 2 titles (1999, 01)
- Juan Carlos Ferrero 2 titles (2002-03)
- Rafael Nadal 8 titles (2005-12)
- Vilas shared his 1981 title with Jimmy Connors when rain halted the match at 5-5. No American has won an outright title at Monte Carlo.
- Ferrero was never the same after injuries in 2004. How much more could he have added in the age of Nadal?
- All of the double Monte Carlo champions won at least one French Open title.
- They combined for 29 of the 46 French Open titles in the Open era
- Tennis legends Jim Courier, Andre Agassi and Roger Federer never won a title at Monte Carlo. Other one-time French Open champions also failed to win Monte Carlo.
Djokovic won Monte Carlo in 2013. If he wins this year, history shows he is dominant enough to win a French Open title. However, the past is irrelevant when present conditions are all that can shape the future. The Nadal factor has certainly made this a more difficult quest.
Rome: The Double Champions
Since the Open era of tennis, there have been only nine players who have won Rome's Italian Open at least twice in their careers. Again the list:
- Ilie Nastase 2 titles (1970, 73)
- Bjorn Borg 2 titles (1974, 78)
- Vitas Gerulaitis 2 titles (1977, 79)
- Andres Gomez 2 titles (1982, 84)
- Ivan Lendl 2 titles (1986, 88)
- Jim Courier 2 titles (1992-93)
- Thomas Muster 3 titles (1990, 95-96)
- Rafael Nadal 7 titles (2005-07, 09-10, 12-13)
- Novak Djokovic 2 titles (2008, 11)
- Only Gerulaitis and Djokovic do not have a French Open title.
- Jan Kodes and Sergi Bruguera are the only two-time French Open champions to never win Rome. Kodes also did not win Monte Carlo.
- Courier was the first player to defend his title at Rome. Only Muster and Nadal have replicated this. Nadal did this on three separate occasions, including the only three-peat. Muster is the only other player to win Rome as many as three total times.
- From 1996-2005, there were 10 different winners in 10 years.
- Since 2005, Nadal and Djokovic have won all the titles. If either wins in 2014, it will be 10 years with only two winners.
- Players who won Rome and the French Open in the same year: Nastase (73), Borg (74, 78), Adriano Panatta (76), Lendl (86), Courier (92), Muster (95) and Nadal (05-07, 10, 12-13). Put another way, it has only been done 13 times in 46 years, and six of those doubles have come from Nadal.
- Rod Laver and Pete Sampras each won one Rome title in the Open era, but Sampras failed to win the French Open. Agassi and Kuerten had only one Rome title.
- Federer has zero titles at Monte Carlo or Rome in his six combined finals appearances. Nadal created five of those Federer defeats and Felix Mantilla (2003) won in Federer's first Rome final.
The Clay Triple Crown
Which players won Monte Carlo, Rome and the French Open at least one time each in their careers?
- Ilie Nastase
- Guillermo Vilas
- Bjorn Borg
- Mats Wilander
- Ivan Lendl
- Thomas Muster
- Carlos Moya
- Gustavo Kuerten
- Juan Carlos Ferrero
- Rafael Nadal
- Players to win Monte Carlo, Rome and the French Open in the same year: Nastase (73), Muster (95) and Nadal (05-07, 10, 12-13). Not even Borg, Wilander or Lendl could accomplish this.
- Only five players won two career championships at both Monte Carlo and Rome: Nastase, Borg, Lendl, Muster and Nadal.
- Only Borg, Lendl and Nadal won the Clay Triple Crown at least twice in their career.
- Nadal's Triple: 8-7-8 titles. That's just plain ridiculous and likely impossible to top anytime the rest of the century, if ever. If so, tennis will probably have radically different conditions. This impossibility was discussed last year.
What it Means for Djokovic
Djokovic has accomplished so much on clay, but he has been denied "legendary status" on clay. So far, his two titles at Rome have him ranked as one of the legends there, but he needs one more Monte Carlo title to join that short list.
He would also be the sixth player to win twice at Monte Carlo and Rome. The other five all won the French Open at least once. This would seem to make a French Open title inevitable, but of course this is no guarantee. Nadal is a unique obstacle.
If Djokovic wins the French Open, he will be the 11th member to wear the career Clay Triple Crown, even if he does not win another clay-court tournament.
If Djokovic wins Monte Carlo and the French Open, he will be the sixth member (Nastase, Borg, Lendl, Muster and Nadal) to sit at the regal table of legends at Chateau de Clay. And next year, he would look to join Borg, Lendl and Nadal for the double Triple Crown.
Djokovic is so close to immortality but so far away if he cannot win one more Monte Carlo crown and one French Open title. If he is unable to win the French Open because of injuries, advancing age or Nadal's superior play, he will still be in the courtyards with the other merely "very good" clay-court champions. He will be at the front of the throng, knocking at the door and pleading for an invitation to enter Chateau de Clay, but shut out from immortality.
The doors will open only if Djokovic gets those wins. Beauty, Power and Prestige are not easy hostesses. He must complete his Herculean tasks.
Will 2014 be the year? He is getting closer, but how much time is left ahead? A few years? Right now it's immortality or missed opportunities.
Present performance is all Djokovic can control.
Future history will one day render the final verdict.
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