MONTE CARLO — Few men have experienced anything like the highs Novak Djokovic has enjoyed in his career, from the career grand slam to reaching No. 1 to winning each of the nine Masters 1000 events.
Next month, Djokovic will go into the French Open with the chance to hold all four grand slam titles simultaneously for the second time in his career, having done it in 2016 when he won Roland Garros for the first time.
With 15 grand slam titles to his name, Djokovic has set his sights on chasing down Roger Federer (20) and Rafael Nadal (17). A month away from his 32nd birthday, world No. 1 Djokovic is as fit as ever, hungry for more and, in particular, aiming to win the French Open for a second time.
But if he is to do that, chances are Djokovic will have to get the better of Nadal, who has won Roland Garros a staggering 11 times. Djokovic hammered Nadal in the Australian Open final in January, and the mental battle between the two over the next few weeks promises to be fascinating.
Writing in the latest issue of Tennishead magazine, Serena Williams‘ coach, Patrick Mouratoglou, said he believes Djokovic has a mental edge over Nadal. “Novak won their last meeting at Roland Garros, in 2015, and has also come out on top in 13 of their last 16 matches on all surfaces,” the Frenchman said. “I think the outcome of the French Open this summer may well depend on matches Rafa and Novak play against each other over the next couple of months. If they meet and Novak comes out on top in them, especially on clay, I think it will be difficult mentally for Rafa at Roland Garros.”
The two could meet here this week at the Rolex Monte Carlo Masters, a venue Djokovic can call home but where Nadal has dominated for more than a decade, winning the title 11 times, including each of the past three years.
When he won the French Open in 2016, Djokovic arrived in Paris having won the Madrid Masters and reached the final in Rome. Should he win one of this year’s three clay-court Masters 1000 events, where Nadal will also be present, the psychological boost could be crucial for Djokovic.
“It would be definitely better to approach Roland Garros with a win in one of the big other clay-court events prior to the French Open,” Djokovic said. “But at the same time, I have had great Roland Garros tournaments in the past where I maybe didn’t win any of the big ones before. It doesn’t necessarily mean it’s going to affect completely my state of mind approaching Roland Garros, but it would definitely serve the confidence better if I have won one coming into Paris.”
After his stunning performance in the Australian Open final against Nadal, Djokovic suffered a dip in form at Indian Wells and Miami, with a couple of earlier-than-expected defeats. Speaking in Monte Carlo, he reiterated that he “had a lot going on off the court.”
A five-week break between Australia and Indian Wells cost Djokovic some momentum, and he had to answer many questions about his role, as president of the ATP Player Council, in the decision not to renew the contract of ATP president Chris Kermode at the end of this year.
“I had a great last six months of last season, amazing start of this year,” Djokovic said. “Indian Wells, Miami have been kind of so and so, in terms of how I played and the results. But in Miami I was already playing better tennis than I have in Indian Wells, so I’ll try to pick that up from there and see how it goes on clay.
“Other than those two tournaments, the others I have played (in the past year) were at least, I think, semifinals or finals, most of the tournaments I played. That can serve only as an incentive, so to say, or confidence boost prior to clay season.”
Beating Nadal on clay remains the most difficult challenge in men’s tennis, and doing it at Roland Garros is something only Djokovic, in the quarterfinals in 2015, and Sweden’s Robin Soderling, in the fourth round in 2009, have achieved.
Djokovic said beating Nadal in a French Open final would top the lot, but as the clay-court season begins in earnest this week, he knows doing it will be extremely difficult.
“I think Rafa is always a very clear favorite on any clay court in the world, and it doesn’t change — he’s still there,” Djokovic said. “Obviously it depends how he’s feeling physically. I have seen him play here, he’s been here a few days, seems like he’s fine. If he’s physically fit, he’s definitely the No. 1 guy on this surface, without a doubt. And then, you know, after him it’s quite open.”
Austrian Dominic Thiem, the runner-up to Nadal in Paris last summer and the winner in Indian Wells last month, said even the other players are curious to see how a potential Djokovic-Nadal battle might turn out.
“[Djokovic is] on the top of his game again,” Thiem said. “He won the last three slams in a row, which is amazing, and I think he also has in his mind that he can beat Rafa anywhere. Last year he obviously was not on his top game, so there’s one more really strong opponent for Rafa, which makes the whole clay-court season even more interesting I would say.”