Is Novak Djokovic Ready to Finally Get the French Open Monkey off His Back?

Lindsay Gibbs@linzsports Featured ColumnistMay 17, 2015

Serbia's Novak Djokovic celebrates after defeating Switzerland's Roger Federer in their men's final match at the Italian Open tennis tournament, in Rome, Sunday, May 17, 2015. Djokovic won 6-4 6-3. (Claudio Onorati/ANSA via AP) ITALY OUT
Claudio Onorati/Associated Press

Novak Djokovic has accomplished many things in his illustrious career. He's been world No. 1 for 147 weeks and counting. He has won eight Grand Slams (including five Australian Opens, two Wimbledons and one U.S. Open), 24 Masters titles and 53 singles titles in all.

Still, there's one very notable accolade missing from Djokovic's resume: French Open Champion.

Alessandra Tarantino/Associated Press

But now, after winning the Rome Masters title on Sunday 6-4, 6-3 over Roger Federer for his 22nd straight victory, he finally looks primed to conquer the clay courts of Paris.

Let's face it: In any other era Djokovic would have already had at least one French Open title. He has a career record of 42-10 at the tournament, with two final appearances and six semifinal appearances. He loves clay courts and has 10 career titles on the surface.

Unfortunately, he just happens to be playing in the era with the greatest clay-court player of all time.

Nothing in sports over the past decade has been as sure of a thing as Rafael Nadal winning the French Open. He has won the tournament nine out of the 10 times he's played it dating back to his debut in 2005, only leaving room for Roger Federer to win the championship in that span.

In Djokovic's 10 previous appearances at Roland Garros, his title hopes have been dashed by Nadal six times, including the past three years in a row when he has been playing his best tennis. The Serb has beaten Nadal 20 times in his career, including five times on clay, but has never been able to defeat his rival at the French Open.

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Darko Vojinovic/Associated Press

This year, though, it feels as if the tide has already significantly turned. 

By all accounts, Djokovic is having a spectacular season. He is 35-2 with five titles, including four Masters titles and a Slam. He isn't undefeated coming into Paris like he was back in 2011, but considering he's built a 4,600-point cushion in the rankings over No. 2 Federer, he seems more formidable than ever. Notably, he agrees.

"So far, this is the best season of my life," he said after his Rome victory, as reported by BBC Sport. "I don't know how it will go at Roland Garros, but I'm very confident.

Alessandra Tarantino/Associated Press

"I'm playing with great joy and concentration and I hope to continue."

However, the key difference heading into this French Open isn't Djokovic's superb play, but rather Nadal's subpar form.

Throughout his career, Nadal has been able to prepare himself to peak in late May no matter his mental or physical condition. Even in years when he hasn't skated through the clay season unblemished, such as 2011 when he lost to Djokovic in two clay-court Masters finals, or last year when he lost to David Ferrer, Nicolas Almagro and Djokovic in the lead-up to the French, he has always come into Roland Garros with confidence.

This season, however, Nadal is coming into Roland Garros with only one title under his belt in 2015, a victory at a small clay-court event back in February. Since then, in addition to losing to Djokovic in the Monte-Carlo semis, the Spaniard has fallen to the likes of Milos Raonic, Fernando Verdasco, Fabio Fognini, Andy Murray and Stan Wawrinka. All talented players, certainly, but players who Nadal in years past would have been able to defeat.

He looks a step slow this year, very defensive and unsure of his game. As Ben Rothenberg of The New York Times points out, nothing about Nadal's current form suggests that he is ready to lift the French Open trophy in three weeks.

Ben Rothenberg @BenRothenberg

Bluntly, nothing in Nadal's game looks ready to win a Slam. If you're picking him to win the French, you're banking only on his Paris magic.

Understandably but still shockingly, these poor results have led to Nadal's ranking slipping all the way down to No. 7. That means that there is a possibility that Djokovic and Nadal could face each other in the quarterfinals at the French.

While there's still a big possibility that Nadal could find himself and his game on the courts of Roland Garros, there's no doubting that his struggles this year have chipped away at the clay-court mystique that has defined his career. Something is just off with the 14-time Grand Slam champion—perhaps it's age, perhaps he's not fully healthy, or perhaps his confidence is just shattered. Only time will tell if he will be able to pull himself together before it's too late.

Of course, Nadal won't be Djokovic's only test at the French Open.

Andy Murray is having a metamorphosis on the clay courts this season and is currently 10-0 on the surface with two titles heading into the French Open. He even defeated Nadal in the final of Madrid. However, Djokovic has beaten Murray the last seven times they've played, including three times this season.

Federer has firmly established himself as the second-best player in the world and has defeated Djokovic this season on hard courts. But, then again, he was thoroughly outclassed in the Rome final by Nole.

Kei Nishikori is certainly dangerous on clay, as is David Ferrer and Tomas Berdych—but Djokovic has already defeated all three of them this clay season as well.

Really, any way you look at it, Djokovic is the favorite headed into Roland Garros.

He's been searching for the missing piece to his Career Slam for four years now. Starting next week, it will be there for the taking.

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