Will the French Open Title Always Elude Novak Djokovic?

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Will the French Open Title Always Elude Novak Djokovic?
Michel Euler/Associated Press

Roger Federer needs to head over to Novak Djokovic’s house/villa/condo, give the Djoker a hug and, like Robin Williams in Good Will Hunting, repeatedly say, “It’s not your fault. It’s not your fault. It’s not your fault.”

Federer knows what it means to run into the unstoppable force that is Rafa Nadal at the French Open. Djokovic, for all the times he’s played Nadal—12 times in Grand Slams, six times at Roland Garros—is now realizing (or has he always realized?) that as long as Nadal stands between him and the Coupe des Mousquetaires, it will always elude his grasp. Federer knows.

Federer at long last completed the career Grand Slam by defeating Robin Soderling in the 2009 final. Soderling disposed of Nadal for Federer, thus allowing Federer his best chance at a French in his illustrious career. There wasn’t a mental hurdle to jump with Soderling, just a physical one, so to speak.

Djokovic had the momentum heading into Sunday’s match against Nadal. Djokovic won their previous four meetings, including the ATP Masters 1000 in Rome on clay. But Nadal at Roland Garros is like Sauron on Mt. Doom: all-knowing, all-powerful, never sleeping, somehow disembodied. Djokovic’s best chance could be to take all nine of Nadal’s Coupe des Mousquetaires and throw them into the fires of Mt. Doom, into whatever evil sorcery Nadal summoned when he forged his invincible game in Paris. 

At this point, it’s all in Djokovic’s head. If he’s not already seeing a sports psychiatrist, his PCP needs to refer him yesterday. He dominated the first set against Nadal, winning it 6-3. He had 11 winners and eight unforced errors. He won 85 percent of his first-serve points. For the 44 minutes it took to complete the first set, Djokovic appeared to be in control. But unlike North Carolina’s state motto—"To Be Rather Than To Seem"—Djokovic was all seeming and no being. 

It couldn’t have set up better for Djokovic. He came out and dominated the first set. With at most four sets to play, he just had to win two—two measly sets. Instead, Nadal pounded point after point down Djokovic’s throat and reasserted his alpha maleness.

Heading into Sunday’s final, Djokovic felt this may be his best chance to get his first win versus Nadal at Roland Garros. Djokovic told Sport 24:

It's a very wide and very big court. He likes to have that visual effect, as well, because it appears that he gets every ball back. He feels more comfortable when he plays on the bigger court. That's one of the reasons why he's so successful here. But we played some really close and good matches, good quality matches the last two years here, especially the one last year serving at 4-3 in the fifth set to go 5-3. It was a very close one. And knowing that I was that close to win against him the past two years gives me that reason to believe that I can make it this time. He's not unbeatable.

Actually, he sort of is. Nadal ran his record to 66-1 (!) at the French Open, with that only loss coming in the fourth round against Soderling in 2009. He has since won five consecutive French Opens and will be the favorite to get “one for the thumb” in 2015. He can make a champagne tower out of his French Open trophies.

There appears to be a certain vulnerability in Djokovic that isn’t wholly physical. Seeing Nadal across the net, standing firmly on orange dirt conjures images of Achilles dragging Hector’s dead body at the gates of Troy. Staring him down fills one with a sense of existential futility. What’s the point? 

Grantland’s Louisa Thomas wrote prior to this year’s French Open semis:

Then something happened. No one, not even he, knew what. It had something to do with Nadal’s resurgence, Murray’s ascendance, and Federer’s recovery, and something to do with a natural regression, but that wasn’t all. It had more to do with what happened when he closed his eyes — something to do with faith. He started to hesitate. It’s happened against Nadal, against Wawrinka. It’s happened in matches that he went on to win — for instance, against a hobbled John Isner in Indian Wells, in a match that he struggled and struggled to close out.

There’s that inescapable itch. The Bulls, for a time, couldn’t get by the Pistons, but they did. The Red Sox couldn’t get by the Yankees, but they did. The Colts couldn’t get by the Patriots, but they did. It takes a world of hurt to build a champion and an act of divinity to slay a demigod.

Will Djokovic ever win the French? The answer is yes, in the same way Federer did: by having someone else do the dirty work so that he can keep his hands clean for the Coupe des Mousquetaires. 

The deeper question is: Will Djokovic ever thwart Nadal to win the French? The only way to attack a fear is head on, like Bruce Wayne in the bat cave, to realize it was only a figment of his imagination, that he had nothing to fear at all and that it was always there for the taking if he had only the strength of mind.

Nadal has been hampered by injuries in the past, and if he faces a healthy Djokovic while he himself runs on a 75-percent knee, then Nadal's statue could come crumbling down to earth. As Nadal ages (and it could be argued his body is far older than 28), this outcome increases. It may lead to early losses in tournaments, even at his hallowed French Open grounds.

So long as Nadal is on the other side of that net, Djokovic will never win the French Open. But time has a way of breaking down monoliths, no matter how unbreakable they appear.

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