Djokovic’s Roland Garros Problem 

Julian Finney

Julian Finney

That time of year is upon us once again.  The time of year when a certain tournament is finally being played, after it has crossed the minds of NoleFam members (and probably Novak’s) at least once daily since the time it concluded the previous year.  The one that’s eluded Novak and we all wish he could win so badly.  That’s right.  It’s time for Roland Garros to begin in just a few days.  It’s here.  Start the panicking.

It all start back in 2011 when Novak had the best year of his career.  He became the number one player in the world.  He was able to dominate the sport and add a Wimbledon and US Open trophy to the two Australian Open trophies he’d won by that point.  There was only one missing now: Roland Garros.  Winning it would mean a career grand slam.  A feat only four other players have accomplished in the Open Era.  Those four being Rod Laver, Andre Agassi, Roger Federer, and Rafael Nadal.  A win at Roland Garros puts his name in an exclusive club with some of the greatest players in the sport.  It would do such much for his legacy and how he’s treated and respected within the game, if he were to win this one trophy just one time.  There’s been one problem standing in the way of Novak achieving the prestige of being the fifth person to achieve a career slam in the Open Era.  As Novak has said regarding the problem in his way, “His name is Rafael Nadal.”

What bad luck, right?  You’re one of the greatest players ever, but are unable to win one trophy in particular because you just so happened to be playing at the time the best clay player ever is playing.  No one has ever won a single major trophy as many times as Nadal has, winning Roland Garros nine times.  He even won it the first time he played it as a 19 year old. Nadal is 66-1 at Roland Garros.  The only loss he suffered was to Robin Soderling in 2009.  That was at the time Nadal’s parents were separating.  Also, Nadal had knee problems.  He withdrew from Wimbledon weeks later as defending champion.  Soderling played great to beat Nadal, but Nadal had some physical and emotional problems that might’ve taken away from his performance.  Basically he’s an unbeatable force at a tournament and surface that accentuates his already formidable strengths.  You can see what a difficult task any player would have to win it.  Federer was lucky he got an opportunity by someone else knocking Nadal.  Nole hasn’t been that fortunate. 

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Let’s look through Nole’s three attempts to capture the career grand slam, shall we?

2012:  Not only was Novak going for the career slam, but he was also trying to hold all four majors at one time, an even rarer feat than the career grand slam.  Going into Roland Garros in 2012, Novak had won four of the last five majors, but he’d never made the final in Paris.  He ended up making it to face Nadal, but the road there was difficult.  In the fourth round Novak was down two sets to Andreas Seppi, before coming back to win in five sets.  A round later in the quarterfinals, he had to save four match points against Jo-Wilfred Tsonga in the fourth set, before prevailing in the fifth.  Making it to his first Roland Garros final was kind of like winning it with the tough matches he had to get through.  Another factor I think really matters is the head to head between Nadal and Novak, during the clay season, leading into Roland Garros. When Nadal has success against players, I believe it gives him more confidence.  Nadal had beaten Novak in straight sets of the Monte Carlo and Rome finals.  With Novak having a tough time making it through the draw and Nadal awaiting in the final, it didn’t seem possible he’d win.  He didn’t, but he almost made a match of it.  Some think Novak may even have been able to win had they not stopped for rain in the fourth set.  The dreary conditions were the best Novak has had to beat Nadal due to the ball not bouncing as high.  Novak just wasn’t ready yet.

2013:  Novak was ready now and believed he could win Roland Garros, beating Nadal in the process.  The one problem was Nadal had a knee injury that forced him to miss every event after Wimbledon.  They wouldn’t be guaranteed to be on opposite halves.  It just so happened they ended up on the same half to set up a final-like semifinal.  Novak had won their only clay season meeting in Monte Carlo.  He had the momentum and made the semi’s dropping just one set.  It was the closest Nole has ever gotten.  Nadal served for the match in the fourth set, but Novak broke him and won the tiebreak.  Novak broke to start the fifth and held three straight times.  He had a couple looks in Nadal’s service games, but was unable to get another break.  The 4-3 game will haunt Nole and NoleFam forever.  The net was involved.  Let’s leave it at that.  Nadal ended up winning 9-7.

2014:  Novak and Nadal were the top two seeds and safely on opposite halves.  Novak won the only clay meeting in the Rome final.  They’d meet in the final again.  Novak won the first set.  He’d never lost a final when winning the opening set.  Until now.  The second set got to 5-5 and after that it was over.  Nole was throwing up on court.  He’d been fighting an illness that week.  He barely got through his semifinal vs Ernests Gulbis.  Things just wouldn’t work out for him yet again.

Okay take a few minutes and grab a tissue to wipe those tears, NoleFam, and read on.

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So now here we are in 2015.  The dream remains.  This year there’s many story lines going into Roland Garros.  As for Novak he’s won every top event he’s participated in, beginning with the Paris Masters at the end of 2014.  He has also won WTF’s, Australian Open, Indian Wells, Miami Open, Monte Carlo, and Rome.  His last defeat in a big tournament was to Roger Federer in the Shanghai semifnals.  That’s 37 matches in a row he’s won at the top events.  He’s on a 22 match winning streak with his last defeat coming to Roger Federer in Dubai.  He’s 14-1 vs top ten players in 2015, having beaten most of the contenders for Roland Garros during the clay season, with the exception of Andy Murray and Stan Wawrinka. 

Usually win streaks make me nervous.  Ever since the Australian Open in 2014 when Nole lost to Wawrinka, ending his 28 match win streak and 25 match Australian Open win streak, I’ve despised streaks.  I believe it means a loss is coming.  I feel differently this time though.  I’m not concerned about Nole losing a match and his win streaks.  There’s a far greater streak in play.  Novak has a streak of losing at Roland Garros ten straight years.  I don’t feel the pressure of a win streak because he has a far greater losing streak.  It’s like he can go into the event without the weight of a win streak on his shoulders.

As for Nole’s nemesis, Nadal didn’t win a European clay court tournament, a rarity having only happened in Nadal’s first season.  Nadal showed top form at times and it seemed his confidence came back, but disappointing losses continued to show up at each tournament.  Nadal has never gone into Roland Garros like this.  Players believe they can beat him.  He’s not the player he’s been in years past.  Wawrinka said as such after he beat him in Rome.  It almost appears Nole may not have to go through Nadal to win this coveted trophy.  That is depending on the draw…

The seeds are a mess.  The top four favorites for the trophy, in my opinion, could be on the same half.  (In order, I believe the favorites are Nadal, Nole, Murray, Nishikori).  What a detriment to the tournament.  We could get a repeat of the 2013 final.  Nadal is ranked 7th in the world and Roland Garros will not change his seed.  It’s possible Nole could play Nadal in the quarterfinals.  We won’t know until the draw, so it’s useless to speculate which piece of paper, or whatever they use, will be drawn first.  We just have to recognize it’s possible Nole could have to play Nadal or Nishikori in the quarterfinals and hope for the best.  Que sera, sera. 

Nole does have a victory against Nadal in their only clay meeting of 2015, for a third consecutive season, having beaten Nadal in Monte Carlo.  Nole will have that belief and momentum again, as well as, a not as confident Nadal.  Roland Garros can transform Nadal though.  Now you have to win three sets from him.  It’s only been done once ever, including Davis Cup and Masters 1,000’s.  Another factor is Nadal will be hungry.  He doesn’t have that winning feeling and will want it back desperately, along with a tenth Roland Garros title.  It won’t be easy by any stretch of the imagination, but it seems more possible than ever this could be the year.

Photographer unknown

Photographer unknown

My mindset as a Nole fan heading into Roland Garros is to take it one match at a time.  Given what his draw could be, we have to assume it’ll be the toughest imaginable.  I believe people are overlooking the potential of Nole playing Monfils or Tsonga in the fourth round.  As successful as those two have been at Roland Garros, I don’t believe anyone would want to play them, especially with the French crowd on their side. 

I’m not sure if this will be the year our pain and misery will be over, but it seems like we’ve got a real shot this year.  I’m hoping badly Nole will get it because I can’t take thinking about this tournament every day for another year.  I also want it badly for Nole because he’s a great clay player.  Much better than the others who’ve missed out on it.  He’s just had to beat the best clay player ever.  He doesn’t deserve to be in the same conversation of players who’ve missed out on it from completing the career slam because he’s not a bad clay court player.  Without Nadal, Novak would have won this trophy the last three years.  If anything Nole should be heralded for his efforts, being the only one capable of defeating as dominate of a player as Nadal is at Roland Garros.  He’s just never had the luck on his side.

I feel confident Nole will give it his best effort.  With the support of Jelena, baby Stefan, his team, and fans, it should provide him energy and motivation to achieve the ultimate dream, so we can all not be consumed with this one tournament anymore and be able to enjoy it from now on.  Oh what a feeling it’d be.

Al Bello

Al Bello

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