This article has been featured in The Sunday Times but I have also included it here for your convenience.
An Australian upbringing and being taught the legend of Rod Laver since the time I first picked up a tennis racket probably makes the following statement something like heresy. However if Novak Djokovic does today complete the set to hold all four Grand Slam titles at the same time, it will be unquestionably one of, if not the greatest achievement in the history of tennis.
Contrary to what I’ve been saying for the best part of two years, I really do believe he’s going to do it this year or in the near future. Partly because I’ve been proved wrong by Djokovic too many times now but mainly down to the fact I’ve come to accept he is the player capable of superhuman effort and that’s what it will take to overcome Rafael Nadal on French Open clay.
Hands up, I got some things wrong. Looking back almost two years I was prepared to write Djokovic off as a spent force after he lost the Wimbledon semi-final to Tomas Berdych. Then last July, I didn’t think Djokovic would win the Wimbledon final against Nadal and he did. It was the same at the U.S. Open and I really didn’t give him a hope in Australia after than brutal semi-final against Andy Murray and day less than his opponent to recover. Even going into the fifth set of the marathon final, I was convinced it was going to be Rafa’s night but there’s something inside that Serbian body that nowadays just refuses to give up. Herculean is the only world to describe his gift.
Sure Nadal has been in top form all the way through this French Open, whereas Djokovic got into trouble against Andreas Seppi and then had to fend off four match points in the quarter final with Jo-Wilfried Tsonga. Both times his inner strength paid off with a confidence to really go for the big shots, hitting the lines. And answer me this; who has Nadal really had to beat to get this far? David Ferrer is a great competitor against anyone else but there’s an inferiority complex when he gets on court with Rafa and the other Spaniard, Nicolas Almagro is the same.
Basically Nadal hasn’t been tested so far. Sure he played an exemplary match to crunch Ferrer in the semi-final but that shouldn’t come as any great surprise; on clay he always does the same. Djokovic in a major final over the best of five sets is a far different kind of opponent; he’s not intimidated by Rafa, not frightened and rises to the challenge.
Sure Nadal has only ever lost one match at Roland Garros in eight years and that was when he wasn’t fit against Robin Soderling. Yes, he is the master of clay but each time in the last three major finals, Djokovic has been the supposed underdog and proved himself to be the stronger, both mentally and physically. I don’t doubt this is going to be the hardest test of all, more demanding and possibly even longer than that classic at Melbourne Park in January that lasted nearly six hours.
There’s no doubting Djokovic has burrowed his way deep into Nadal’s self-belief in majors. After those three defeats when he was supposed to be the favourite, he’s wondering what he needs to do to beat the guy who deposed him as world no.1. Don’t take any notice of those two final wins in Monte Carlo and Rome leading up to this tournament, this rivalry is all about the biggest of tournaments and in that respect, there is simply no debate on who holds the upper hand.
If Nadal is to give himself a chance, he’s got to take risks. He’s got to serve repeatedly into the Djokovic body and he must not dare drop the ball short, which has been his downfall when the pressure mounts upon him. Look at Djokovic when he was up against it in the Tsonga, he wasn’t afraid or looking for the safer option. I believe that is a major difference between him and Rafa.
Back when I was a kid, an old coach told me something that rings true today. A good tennis player is a bit like brewing a cup of tea. The longer you spend in hot water, the stronger you get and that’s certainly been the case for Djokovic this tournament. Some people were saying the semi-final against Roger Federer was disappointing in terms of quality and the amount of errors made. Personally I thought Djokovic played the match superbly and some of his returning was right out of the top drawer.
This is a truly great era with Nadal and Federer testing Djokovic. I honestly think Federer is a more complete player now than he was six years ago. Sure there was the time of McEnroe, Borg, Connors and Lendl but none of them managed to win four majors in a row. Federer also twice came up short at three in Paris five and six years ago and in 2010 so did Nadal in Australia but I believe Djokovic has what it takes to succeed.
Finally to those who insist it’s not a proper Grand Slam because it’s not done in the same calendar year; you’re nitpicking, honestly what difference should that make? Surely beating the man who is revered as the King of Clay at Roland Garros to complete the full set is a bigger achievement.
*Photo Credit: AP