I often say tennis is a mental sport, but it’s also a momentum sport and right now no guy on the tennis tour has more of that going for him right now than Novak Djokovic. No one. And perhaps no one in the modern era of tennis has had such an impressive run.
The Djoker has been stunningly strong in compiling his recent 39-match win streak and there hasn’t been any sign of it slowing down.
Once a player of questionable fitness, Djokovic’s physical makeup has suddenly become a strength. The birthday boy (he’s 24 on Sunday) is now outlasting the indefatigable Rafael Nadal (Miami) and Andy Murray (Rome) and as we shift to a best-of-five format, that’s vital for any Paris hopeful.
And we know about Novak’s machine-like game which seems to be peaking at just the right time. Let’s face it, the Djokovic playing right now would beat the Djokovic who won the Australian Open in straight sets. Seriously!
The only issue he may face at the French is the pressure of being a first-time Slam favorite and perhaps some over confidence.
In Paris it’s not just tournament he’s never reached the final at, but he’s also chasing the No. 1 ranking and the streak, which if he wins would climb to 46 tying him with Guillermo Vilas for best in the Open Era.
So there is a lot at stake and his draw really doesn’t help him any. But the way he is playing I just don’t see anyone taking three sets from him these next two weeks (what’s he lost all year, nine?).
Novak’s 2011 French Open journey begins with the capable Thiemo de Bakker who’s no pushover followed by recent Nice finalist Victor Hanescu. Those are too good early round matches – Monday and Wednesday – which should get he acclimated to the court speed and the new balls.
All eyes will then look toward a third round clash with Juan Martin Del Potro in what could very well be his most dangerous match. If the Argentine is playing the way we know he can Djokovic could be reduced to a spectator. But after that hip injury I’m not so sure well see the best from Delpo. And I don’t think he’ll have the legs for best-of-5 either.
After that, it’s Richard Gasquet. I think the talented Frenchman actually plays well in this year in France and comes through. But once again the pressure will get to Gasquet against Novak. But it should be a great match.
In the quarterfinals Novak will likely face Tomas Berdych. But Djokovic owns the Czech and on clay he should be able to comfortably manage.
His second major test (after Del Potro) will come in the semifinal against Federer. Roger hasn’t been playing great but I like his draw. Lopez is tough in best-of-3 but in a five setter I don’t think he can snatch three from Fed.
Tsonga-Federer fourth round would be a test however, like Gasquet, I think the pressure of playing in Paris gets to Tsonga. And clay just isn’t his best surface. In the quarterfinals Federer should run into Ferrer, but Roger has had his way with David and I’ll take him even on the slow clay.
So a Federer-Djokovic semifinal it is. And in that match the pressure will be squarely on Djokovic’s shoulders which I think gives Federer a decent chance to pull the upset. Sure, Novak’s dominated Federer this year but not the same way he has Nadal. Against Rafa, Novak’s also gained the upper hand mentally with those crushing losses in finals. With Federer, I don’t think Djokovic’s wins (Miami, Dubai) has left that deep a scar. And if they meet I’m sure Federer will have some tricks in the press aim to get inside Novak’s head.
But I still like Novak to beat Roger who just hasn’t looked that great this season.
In the final, it’s hard to bet against him facing Nadal. Take away the two Djokovic losses and Rafa still may not have had his best clay campaign. That said, it was better than just about anyone else’s except Djokovic’s.
Nadal’s draw is tricky with his main obstacle coming in the form of Robin Soderling in the quarterfinals. His first round opponent, John Isner, can be nasty but not on clay, and Nikolay Dayvdenko has enjoyed a rare edge 6-4 but this match comes on the dirt.
And I don’t think Fernando Verdasco (like a Wawrinka) has it in his fiber to take out a national hero like Rafa in the fourth round.
So Soderling could very well be Rafa’s big bugaboo. But can lightning strike twice (or even thrice?). Can Soderling really beat Nadal twice at Roland Garros? Can Soderling really beat the world No. 1 three straight years at the French Open? Sounds far-fetched, doesn’t it? It does. Sorry, Robin.
In the semifinals I think Nadal gets Jurgen Melzer who surprises everyone by getting back the French Final Four. That Murray-Melzer section is a complete crapshoot. Nicolas Alamgro is arguably the best clay court player but he’s also a guy who never can win the big one. Murray’s looked good in losses to Nadal and Djokovic but otherwise he didn’t really beat a decent clay courter (Simon? Mayer??) in between his elbow injury – and now there’s some groin concern. Alexandr Dologpolov could get hot and run the table and even Milos Raonic could be a threat if he gets his serve rockin, but they are longshots.
Meanwhile, Melzer did beat Albert Montanes, Almagro and Federer in the last month. Those are three good clay court wins and his draw this week couldn’t have been any better. So I’ll take the Austrian to get out to the semifinals.
And if it is Nadal v. Melzer, well we’ll have a lefty in the final and I’ll go out on a limb and say it won’t be Jurgen!
So as it is seemingly destined I think we’ll get another Nadal-Djokovic showdown. Everything is point that way. And like the previous two on clay, unless Nadal amps up his serve Djokovic is going to win. He’ll gets his third Slam, his No. 1 ranking and he’ll get in the record books. It would be a fitting conclusion to one of the greatest first half of a season any pro tennis player has ever had.
Now let’s see if Djokovic can complete the task. I think he will.
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