Paris: World No 1 Novak Djokovic has enjoyed two good weeks on red clay but admitted that winning a second French Open title would be a tall order after a crushing defeat by Rafael Nadal in last week’s Italian Open final.
Djokovic clinched the Madrid Open without dropping a set and then won a pair of epic battles against Argentines Juan Martin Del Potro and Diego Schwartzman in Rome before succumbing to the imperious Nadal 6-0, 4-6, 6-1 in Sunday’s final.
The Serb’s form seems to have peaked in time for the May 26-June 9 tournament. However, the 32-year-old from Belgrade, who has won 15 Grand Slam titles, made it clear Nadal, who is the same age, was the favourite at Roland Garros.
He also named Austrian Dominic Thiem, the 25-year-old world No 4 as a strong contender.
“Nadal [is] the No. 1 favourite without a doubt, and then everyone else,” a serene Djokovic said. “I think it’s going to be a really good tournament. Dominic Thiem has been playing some good tennis and he can beat anybody, especially on clay.
Grand Slams to me are like a playground, I have a lot of fun there.
“On a given day, best of five [sets], with one day between matches, players will have enough time to really be at their best.
“Everybody is trying to peak for Roland Garros and I am really looking forward to it.”
Djokovic’s exploits on clay came after several months of patchy form following his January triumph at the Australian Open in Melbourne where he beat Nadal in straight sets.
A quarter-final loss in Monte Carlo came on the back of early exits at Indian Wells and Miami, prompting speculation by pundits that Djokovic was heading for a dip in form similar to the one in 2016 after he won his maiden French Open title.
But the Serb silenced his critics with a vintage run in Rome, including a rip-roaring victory over Del Potro when he saved two match points in the second set before dismantling his close friend in the third.
Nadal is the No. 1 favourite without a doubt, and then everyone else.
Djokovic has already achieved the rare feat of holding all four major honours at the same time, having won the 2015 Wimbledon and US Open titles before clinching the Australian Open and French Open crowns the following year.
After two difficult years dogged by an injury which required elbow surgery and a dramatic loss of form, Djokovic bounced back spectacularly to clinch the Wimbledon and the US Open titles again in 2018 as well as this year’s Australian Open.
He is certainly buoyed by the prospect of emulating his achievement of holding all four majors but knows that nothing less than perfection will be required for what would amount to a carbon copy of his most successful 12 months on tour.
Osaka on a roll
While Djokovic has been at the pinnacle of the men’s game for more than a decade, WTA No. 1 Naomi Osaka has just began to establish a name for herself over the past year.
Osaka was seeded at a Grand Slam for the first time at the 2018 French Open when she made the third round, countering claims she was the “coolest thing in tennis” by asserting she was the sport’s “most awkward person”.
But it was the razzle-dazzle of New York — helped by a mega-meltdown by Serena Williams — which propelled her to a maiden Slam triumph in September.
That was backed up by a second major at the Australian Open, her status as the face of the new generation of women’s tennis comfortably confirmed.
However, she too faces an uphill battle to claim the title on the red clay of Roland Garros as defending champion Simona Halep is heavily fancied to repeat her feat of 12 months ago.
The 27-year-old Romanian enters Roland Garros as favourite given the contrasting form of some of the top names, including Osaka, but her own clay court preparation has not been spectacular either.
The world No. 3 could have knocked Osaka off top spot by winning the Madrid Open earlier this month but lost in straight sets to Dutchwoman Kiki Bertens in the final.
A few days later, she fell at her first hurdle in the Italian Open.
“I have no expectations because it’s the first time when I have to defend a trophy at a Grand Slam,” she said. “I just want to enjoy the tournament and try to win some matches. Nothing more.”
Osaka’s 2019 results have been steady rather than spectacular — she hasn’t reached a final since Melbourne while her clay court season has been blighted by injury. An abdominal strain forced a pullout from Stuttgart while a hand injury sparked an early departure from Rome last week.
Not that Osaka is getting too down on herself.
“Grand Slams to me are like a playground, I have a lot of fun there,” she said ahead of Sunday’s French Open start.
“I think for me, I’m kind of comfortable with clay now. It’s just like I randomly slip. I feel like if I can get that under control, I’ll be good.”