Novak Djokovic: Why the French Open 2011 Is His to Lose

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Novak Djokovic: Why the French Open 2011 Is His to Lose
Alex Livesey/Getty Images

Novak Djokovic is the first man in the semifinals as his Tuesday quarterfinal opponent Fabio Fognini withdrew with injury prior to the match.

One more win and the Djoker will have equalled John McEnroe's 42-0 record to start a season.

Two more wins and the record will be his alone, winning two Slams in the process whereas McEnroe didn't get to win one.

Is Novak the favourite to win this thing? Prior to the tournament I argued that he had earned himself a spot as the co-favourite together with eternal clay favourite Rafael Nadal.

Today, as we have entered the second week, I will argue that he's the definite favourite and the tournament's is now his to lose.

None of the top players have faced a tougher test Nole has, when he squared off with Juan Martin Del Potro in the third round. The two players went toe and toe for the first two sets, exchanging bullet like ground strokes every game.

Darkness meant the match could not be concluded on Friday and when play was resumed on Saturday, Novak proved that his consistent excellence was too much too handle, even for the resurgent Argentine.

As Steve Tignor wrote on tennis.com, he played like Federer in the sense of raising his level to unheard of levels, once he got ahead and like Nadal in the sense of putting so much top-spin on his forehands that he had a much higher safety margin than the flatter striking Delpo.   

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He will either face Federer or Monfils in the semis and he holds the advantage against either. As good as Roger has been playing, Novak has proved capable of doing exactly the same thing that Nadal has done to Federer over the years; relentlessly attack his backhand.

This has proved a winning recipe three times this year, but if Federer can use all his variety and the court plays fast, he might be able to pull of the "upset." I think he has as good a chance of any player left in the draw against Djokovic, Nadal included. 

I doubt that Gael Monfils will make it past Federer, but even if he does, I fail to see how he can beat the current Djokovic. What can he do better than Djokovic?

 

The final

That leaves us with the final. As bad as Nadal has been playing, he is the man most likely to stand across the net once we get to the final Sunday. But before reviewing that match-up, let's briefly dwell on the remaining players chances against the Djoker. 

Juan Ignacio Chela is a more than decent 19-8 on clay this year and on an eight match winning streak of his own on the red turf. The 30-year-old Argentinian is in his third Slam quarterfinal, the second in Paris, but do we really expect him to advance to the final and upset Djokovic in the final, winning his fourth ATP title ever? I can't see it happen. 

Should Victor Troicki advance to the final, we would have the first ever all Serb Grand Slam final. And Djokovic would win it as his won every single of their ten matches but the first. 

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Can Robin Söderling repeat his 2009 upset of Nadal and continue his run to the final? Possibly. 

Can the two time runner-up beat Novak Djokovic once he get there and take the last step up the ladder? 

Not that likely. The big Swede is 1-6 against Djokovic and recently got blown off the court in Rome in a 6-3, 6-0 pounding. Then again, Nadal beat Söderling 6-1, 6-0 in Rome in 2009, a few weeks before Söderling gave us the biggest upset in the decade. When Söderling is firing on all cylinders, he can beat anyone.

But his big serve, big-hitting game doesn't match well up with the best returner on tour, who's also more than happy to absorb, redirect or counter the pace of his opponents' ground-strokes.

What about Britain's forever hope, Andy Murray? The Scot is tied at two-sets-all with Victor Troiki and will have to have a quicker start in the final set than he had today (down 5-0 in the first by the blink of an eye) to secure his own spot in the quarters against Chela.

Murray has the game and variety to trouble Djokovic as was evident in their Rome encounter, when Murray came within two points of ending the Streak at three different times. But he rolled his ankle on Saturday and he's movement wasn't as confident as could be in today's match. 

If he does prevail tomorrow, he has to praise his luck in having a winnable quarters against Chela before having to deal with Nadal and Söderling in the semi's. Can he beat Djokovic should he get to the final Sunday?

The Scot has always fallen short on the final Sunday and against a Djokovic playing with sky-high confidence and playing for history, you would have to give the clear edge to Djokovic.

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That said, a healthy Murray has enough tools in his tool box to provide the upset.

 

Can the "King of Clay" bounce back?

 That leaves us with Nadal. The Spanish bull said it bluntly today: 

"I'm not playing well enough to win this tournament".

While that does seem true at the moment, it would be foolish to rule out the five time champion prematurely. While he looks like a man ready for the picking, he has got to like his chances against any of the pre-final opponents.

He's 5-2 against Söderling and 10-4, 3-0 (clay) against Murray.

As Nadal also said in today's presser, he lacks rhythm and he'll have a hard time finding that against another big-hitter like Söderling. That might just be the Swede's best chance of doing the impossible:

Beating the King of Clay for the second time at Roland Garros.

By the start of the tournament, I was fairly sure Nadal would be in the final. I'm not certain anymore, but I do give him the advantage against any opponents left in his quarter.

But unless he improves his game by a very huge margin, I can't see how he can beat Djokovic. Nadal wins by breaking down his opponents over time. He wins by winning the vast majority of the eight-plus strokes rallies.

He wins by pounding his forehand to the opponent's backhand. Against Djokovic, he can do neither. In fact, Djokovic seems to have the advantage in almost all areas of the game.

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Return-game, serve, backhand and, at present, mental toughness all go to Djokovic. Even Nadal's great forehand cannot be said to be better than Djokovic as both of them are playing right now. Neither can his mobility and ability to turn defense into offense.   

Moreover, Nadal's game seems to have gotten progressively worse over the course of the clay season. He looked fine if not almighty in Monte Carlo and Barcelona. But then a certain Djoker entered the draw and Nadal suddenly looked vulnerable in Madrid and even more so in Rome, where he was supposed to be the big favourite. 

In Paris, he's been on the verge of being ousted by the super-sonic server John Isner. And as much as people would like to make John Isner a great threat, the fact of the matter is that he has no business coming close to beating the clay king on clay.

Isner was 4-6 on clay going into the match, having won two matches against top 100 players (No. 38 Sergiy Stakhovsky and No. 94 Horacio Zeballos) and two matches against players outside the top 300. And it wasn't as if his loses came to great, great players.

Only two of them came to top-80 players, 11th ranked Mardy Fish and 42th ranked Juan Ignacio Chela.  

This giant is no clay giant and has no business taking multiple sets of Rafa on clay.

The bottomline is that Novak Djokovic must be considered the clear favourite at this stage of the tournament. If he wins it, he will have compiled the greatest start of the season in the Open Era and only one match short of Vilas' 46 consecutive wins record.

In the process, he might also become the second man knocking out both Roger and Rafa in a slam and, let us not forget, compile a 9-0 2011 record against the two all time greats.

The tournament is his to lose.   

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