Novak Djokovic Facing Down His French Open Demons in Return to Final

Greg CouchNational ColumnistJune 3, 2016

So now, Novak Djokovic gets to stare down the beast one more time. He is already the best tennis player in the world, as he just keeps proving again and again. On Friday in the semifinals of the French Open, he crushed the new leader of tennis' Generation Next, Dominic Thiem, 6-2, 6-1, 6-4.

He'll face his rival from this generation, Andy Murray, in Sunday's final.

Roger Federer and Rafael Nadal are playing on broken down bodies now, and Djokovic has bypassed them anyway. They are suddenly from the past and aren't a real regular threat to Djokovic. But at the same time, they are still THE threat to Djokovic.

Even though he has passed them, they still are who he wants to be. And for all the history Djokovic keeps making, he has not won the French Open.

Nadal and Federer won all four majors. Nadal and Federer are still tennis' gods, as both are in the debate about the greatest player of all time (I'll take Nadal). Djokovic has grumbled over the years when people won't include him in the talk.

He has beaten both of them in all the big moments. What more can he do? It's not easy to break into the hearts of a tennis fanbase in love with Federer and Nadal. But the one thing Djokovic has to do:

Win the French Open. It's still his demon. This will be the fourth time in five years he has reached the final. He lost to Nadal in the final in 2012 and 2014, and there's no shame in losing a French Open final to the greatest clay court player of all time. Nadal has won nine French Opens.

But what happened last year? That's when the French officially became Djokovic's beast. He broke Nadal in the quarterfinals; Nadal actually gave up. And then he beat Murray, as he always does. And then?

He lost to Stan Wawrinka in the final. That is factually true, in the record books and all. Wawrinka was crushing backhands. But I don't think Wawrinka is really who beat Djokovic.

It was Nadal and Federer. Djokovic beats them now on the court, but it seems as if he is still beaten by their legacies.

Now, there's no way of knowing for sure what goes on in Djokovic's head. But it's surely more than the clowning around and impersonations he has shown. He is deeper than that; no champion can be that shallow.

On Friday, he had such an easy time with Thiem. Tennis has a serious problem in that its past is starting to disappear, but its future seems unable to arrive, as is evidenced by Djoker's recent domination in Grand Slam events. 

Milos Raonic and Kei Nishikori and Grigor Dimitrov. The next generation simply isn't good enough. It keeps falling just short. It's true on the women's tour, too. So then tennis looks down the road to players a few years younger and creates a new Generation Next.

The new next generation of American men is supposed to be loaded. Don't believe it. Best hope is still Jack Sock from the previous next generation.

But Thiem seems to be the one hope for tennis. He's a 22-year-old Austrian with both athleticism and power and without some major flaw, mental or physical. For reaching the semifinals of the French, Thiem will move into the top 10 in the world rankings.

Maybe he just wasn't ready for a moment like this, against Djokovic at the French. But other than for a 15-minute span in the third set, he wasn't even competitive. He couldn't get the ball past the speedy Djokovic, and he also couldn't keep the ball on the court for long stretches and multiple shots.

No, Djokovic proved Friday that he doesn't have to worry about the coming generations yet. But time goes fast in tennis, and Djokovic is 29 years old.

His speed, flexibility and footwork are his strengths, getting him in position for his incredible angles. Will his body still do that when he's, say, 32? When will he lose a step?

The point is, he has to get past this French Open, Nadal/Federer demon. Each year he doesn't win it is not only a year lost, but also a year the beast grows.

He knows he can beat Murray in big matches. He knows he's a better clay-court player than Murray.

But Murray overcame his own demon, Wimbledon, in 2013. So while Murray also hasn't won a French Open, the pressure is not nearly on him as much as it is on Djokovic. Djokovic knows, too, that he lost to Murray in a French Open tuneup.

Still, Djokovic over Murray is an easy call almost everywhere else in the world and at any time. More so than ever in tennis, the majors are the only way players are measured through history. Djokovic needs his French.

But Djokovic vs. Murray? Nope. Nadal and Federer are teaming up with Murray on this one. That's rough on Djokovic, but this is his opportunity for greatness.

Greg Couch covers tennis for Bleacher Report. Follow him at @gregcouch.

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