Nobody deserves a French Open title, but perhaps Novak Djokovic, more than any other player, appreciates how hard it is to win it. His recent loss in the 2015 final to Stan Wawrinka is also a reminder that Djokovic is the deserving winner of eight career major titles and one of the greatest players of all time.
The aftermath of Djokovic’s gallant but tough defeat reined in a lot of support, ranging from the capricious Roland Garros crowd, who had mostly backed his opponent during the match, to tennis pundits that believe Djokovic will one year get his clay major. Courtney Nguyen for SI.com opined, "There's little doubt in my mind that Djokovic will win the French Open before his career is over. He is still the most consistent, most solid player in the game….He's still the top dog and his time will come."
Yes, there is a good chance he will win this title, but then again he might not. Will Djokovic’s legacy ultimately be complete if he never wins the French Open title?
How Much More Dominance?
Right now it’s hard to imagine the ATP tour without Djokovic at the top. Since 2011, he has dominated the No. 1 ranking and claimed seven majors. He has been durable, hard working and a determined champion who looks like he can continue to dominate his sport for at least a few more years.
Of course it’s just not that easy to win even one major. Since 2011, 11 other major titles have been won by worthy champions, and veterans like Wawrinka are pushing hard for Grand Slam dreams in their late prime years. Aspiring youngsters would love to join the Grand Slam battle royale and eventually one or more of them will, perhaps sooner than we realize.
And what if the all-time King of Clay, Rafael Nadal, is able to get back to fighting form and win another French Open title or two. There’s just no guarantee that Djokovic will be as dominant and as prime as he is in 2015.
Consider the case of Andre Agassi, who has so many parallels to Djokovic. Agassi also won eight majors and he lost in seven major finals (Djokovic has eight finals losses.) Agassi was also the most complete baseliners of his generation but often ran into his more dominant rival, Pete Sampras, who could hammer home major victories behind weapons like superior serving and net game as well as coolness under pressure. There was just very little that Agassi could do to defeat Sampras at his best on fast surfaces.
Agassi, like Djokovic, once felt (according to his autobiography Open, per B/R) that his best French Open opportunity had faded away in 1995 with an injury that dashed his hopes in the quarterfinals. Later that summer, he dominated the hard-courts tour until one devastating Sampras loss in the U.S. Open. The defeat sent his career reeling for over three years.
Djokovic is more focused and dominant than Agassi, but the lesson from his generational likeness is to take nothing for granted. The dominance could continue or it could end quickly. (Djokovic can also take heart that Agassi had a renaissance in 1999, highlighted by his lone French Open title.)
Somewhere between Sampras and the Second Superstar Group?
Suppose we extrapolate with a generous, conservative estimate for three more near-dominant Djokovic years. Let’s say he wins one more Wimbledon title, one more U.S. Open title and two more Australian Open titles. That would give him 12 majors.
Twelve majors would also elevate him well above legends like Agassi, Ivan Lendl, Jimmy Connors, John McEnroe and Mats Wilander. They all won seven or eight majors but, except Agassi, all missed out on claiming either Wimbledon or the French Open.
Would 12 majors rank him as Bjorn Borg’s equal? Borg would probably get the nod for winning six French Open titles and five Wimbledon titles in an age that did not emphasize the Australian Open. Borg also won his majors in a briefer career, choosing not to battle for the top when he walked away at age 25.
Twelve majors would also leave him behind Sampras’ 14 majors in 18 finals, and Sampras was clearly the best player of his generation, including six straight years (1993-98) to end the year ranked No. 1.
Sampras, one of the most dominant players ever, did not win the French Open. Although conditions were different in his era, there was not the same pressure for him to win it at all costs. He just kept hauling in Wimbledon and U.S. Open titles. There was not a sense of failure hanging over Sampras’ inability to win the French Open. It’s been talked about far more after his playing days when tennis fans pick at his resume to compare exploits with Roger Federer and Nadal.
In part because Djokovic is a greater clay-court player than Sampras, he does not have media relief from these discussions while he plays. His greatness is ironically a big reason why he is a victim of expectations. Many of his supporters have predicted and expected that he would dethrone Nadal, and Nadal supporters no doubt understand that their hero has been the biggest reason to keep Djokovic from this title.
Djokovic’s two greatest rivals have won the career Grand Slam, so the expectation is that Djokovic must do so as well, or he will likely not be esteemed as their equal.
There is also the Federer French Open title in 2009. Federer had to endure his own painful disappointments in losing French Open finals to Nadal, but he did seize his greatest opportunity and claim that title. If Djokovic cannot carve out a similar story at Roland Garros and hold up the Musketeers Cup, he will likely remain the third member of the Big Three.
Djokovic could go on and win six or eight more majors, but the absence of a Djokovic French Open title could be a cruel measuring stick from legacy observers.
They will point to his two revered rivals winning the career Grand Slam during Djokovic’s building years.
They might be the head waiter deciding not to grant him permission to be seated with the very greatest legends, ranking him at a forlorn table beside and below the Tennis Club Elite with Sampras, Federer, Nadal, Borg and Rod Laver.