Novak Djokovic is aware that he is playing for tennis history at the 2014 French Open. It’s his goal, his single-minded passion and the most important completion to his legacy. The straight-shooting Serbian spelled it all out in The National:
Roland Garros is always at the top of my priority list and ambitions. It’s the only slam I haven’t won, so this is where I want to win, and I’m going to go for it. I think my game is there, and I’m very, very motivated.
In this era of golden champions, nothing less than the career Grand Slam collection will be enough for Djokovic. One French Open title means an honored seat at table two of Tennis Club Elite. (The waiter will quietly ask Mats Wilander to head the quintet over at table three.) It means that Djokovic will now be seated with Jimmy Connors, Andre Agassi, Ivan Lendl and John McEnroe. There, he alone can still gaze at the head table, hoping to one year join the All-Time Five (Rod Laver, Bjorn Borg, Pete Sampras, Roger Federer, Rafael Nadal).
Right now, this golden promise is only pixie dust, waiting to materialize into his legacy or to vanish into disappointment. He must labor with his best efforts and not think too much about the rewards to his tennis legacy. (Side Note: Players are more aware of tennis legacies than in the past. On one hand, the current superstars are responding well to this awareness. Does it motivate them? On the other hand, could an obsession with legacy burn the eyes of those who lust after its glitter?)
There is a lot of work and winning to do, and the immediate direction of Djokovic's career could be at the tipping point of ultimate victory or agonizing pain.
The Grand Slam Drought
Two years ago, Djokovic was set to win the French Open and complete his career Grand Slam while holding all four majors—a chance to trump contemporary rivals Federer and Nadal. But there was Nadal, defending his sodden red-clay turf like an angry tennis god.
Since Djokovic’s 2012 Australian Open title, he has only captured one major title (2013 Australian Open) in his last eight opportunities. He has been in the mix most often for these titles, but he has suffered the most heartbreak.
It was bad enough to see his comeback get washed away in the 2012 French Open.
It was unkind for fate to blow adversity at the 2012 U.S. Open.
It was exhausting to helplessly thwart Wimbledon’s British curse-buster in 2013.
It was unacceptable to somehow lose the third set of the 2013 U.S. Open.
But it was sheer anguish to watch his 2013 French Open title touch up against a line he could not cross. Not even ancient King Tantalus was so cruelly punished.
Now the Djokovic major title drought has reached 16 months, the same timeline that pushed 2010 Nadal into his quest for redemption and into his greatest stretch of tennis results. He wants to win the French Open for history, yes, but as a champion in his prime, he wants most to begin a second epic Grand Slam streak.
Ripping off three or four majors over the next year and a half would put him a breath away from the head table at Tennis Club Elite. Or he could see his prime opportunities slink away like shadows beneath the King of Clay’s all-consuming sun.
Lessons from French Open 2009
In May 2009, Roger Federer was 27 years old and in his late prime years. The hope of winning one French Open title was beginning to settle into twilight. Never mind that the setting was Paris. Tennis artistry did not matter unless the Swiss Maestro could stand with the Musketeers’ Cup at Roland Garros. He was too great not to win this championship, and anything less would be dumped into the Seine River.
The Federer forecast for that French Open was cloudy with a 99 percent chance of Nadal. And this was particularly gloomy, considering that Federer had lost three straight Grand Slam encounters on three different surfaces in the previous year. Nadal was now an all-courts monster and nothing short of intervention from the tennis gods would clear the air for his opportunity.
Of course, any tennis fan knows that Robin Soderling knocked out Rafael Nadal in the fourth round and that Federer did indeed capture his French Open title. The burden was lifted when he sank to the clay with tears of joy, later admitting the relief he felt, documented in The Telegraph:
It might be the greatest victory of my career.
It takes away so much pressure. Now, I can play in peace for the rest of my career.
Nobody will never tell me again that I have not won Roland Garros. It's nice to be up here on the podium as a winner this time.
But this title was never easy for Federer. Even after Soderling’s shocker, Federer had work to do. He had to overcome the pressure of his golden opportunity, and he had to fight off Tommy Haas and Juan Martin del Potro, each in five sets.
In 2014, Djokovic might need to weave his own French Open title from pieces of Federer’s 2009 tapestry. He is also 27 years old with the clock ticking on his prime years.
There are the expectations and pressures to complete his hall-of-fame legacy.
And there is Nadal defending a (second) streak of four French Open titles. It’s not like the tennis gods wanted this one to be easy, right?
This time, the storyline is set up in Djokovic's favor. He has handled the Nadal problem much better than Federer had by early 2009, winning four straight title matches since October. He is at least the co-favorite, if not the clear choice to win the title.
The plot has been altered in other ways. Instead of a younger, peaking 2009 Nadal, he is wounded with five more years of mileage on his knees and questions abound about his confidence. One can almost see Nadal gathering up the doubtful media comments and predictions, ready to strap on the armor and prove once again that he can win the title at Roland Garros.
The lesson for Djokovic? If Nadal does go down early, his work will be far from finished. There could be another version of Haas and Del Potro hoping to knock him out. The expectations and pressures could grow louder with each game as he drives toward the championship that he must have.
Nadal or not, Djokovic will need to play each match as if his Spanish rival is on the other side. There is no middle ground in the annual quest to push aside the shadows of Federer and Nadal. It will be ultimate victory or agonizing pain.