French Open 2017: Djokovic under a different kind of Roland Garros pressure
Novak Djokovic battled through the pressure to complete a career Grand Slam at the French Open last year and an arduous 12 months on he returns to the scene of his crowning moment with the demands upon him contrasting starkly but proving no less intense.
Djokovic had won six Australian Opens, triumphed at Wimbledon three times and been the victor at the US Open on two occasions, but at this time last year the French Open was still eluding him.
He had won five times in a dominant start to 2016 before commencing his 12th attempt to claim the title at Roland Garros, but the Serbian remained cool despite ongoing questions as to why the trophy continued to evade such a complete player.
Djokovic explained his feelings heading into Paris at a pre-event news conference: "I don't try to approach them from a point of view of being obsessed with this tournament or with any other tournament, for that matter. But I'm also imagining myself, you know, being the winner."
The Serbian emerged victorious in the final against Andy Murray to finally get his hands on La Coupe des Mousquetaires for a 12th major win in his career. The mountain had been scaled and his flag was planted alongside those of Rod Laver, Andre Agassi, Roger Federer and Rafael Nadal – the only other men to have completed the Grand Slam in the Open Era.
But what a difference a year can make.
While his experience on the hallowed French clay last year was euphoric, Djokovic will have felt like the following 12 months have been a rapidly declining spiral of discontent and the 30-year-old later admitted he found it difficult to "re-engage" after accomplishing the biggest remaining goal in his career.
First came the shock third-round exit to Sam Querrey at Wimbledon, then an opening defeat to Juan Martin del Porto at Rio 2016. A run to the US Open final, in which he suffered defeat to Stan Wawrinka, was aided by the withdrawal of three opponents and a frustrating second half to the season culminated in losing the number-one ranking he had held for 122 weeks to Murray.
Djokovic reacted by splitting with coach Boris Becker, and, although he started 2017 with a title in Doha, a surprise loss to Denis Istomin in the second round of his Australian Open defence showed his troubles remained.
The Serbian pulled out of the Miami Open due to an elbow injury and parted ways with his remaining coaching staff before a semi-final defeat to Nadal in Madrid was followed by a run to the final of the Internazionali BNL d'Italia last week.
A resounding 6-1 6-0 semi-final victory over Dominic Thiem, conqueror of Nadal in the last eight, provided a reminder of the utterly brutal way Djokovic can master an opponent. The roars he let out after taking key points sounded like the release of a year's worth of pent-up frustration as he finally produced the sort of display that has come to be expected of him.
First time in a while I can see fire in Novaks face again ...#ATPRome— Boris Becker (@TheBorisBecker) May 20, 2017
After beating Thiem, the Serbian said: "Undoubtedly the best performance of this year and maybe even longer. Yeah, I mean, what can I say?
"It was a perfect match. Everything that I intended to do, I have done it and even more."
But such a keyed-in performance only served to make his capitulation to 20-year-old Alexander Zverev in the Rome final all the more agonising, a 6-4 6-3 victory for the German securing his first ATP Masters 1000 title and denying Djokovic a record-breaking 31st.
Without the target of achieving a Grand Slam to focus on, Djokovic appears to be struggling for the ruthless consistency that put him at the top of the ATP Tour for more than two years.
At the French Open he will have a new face in his corner, though, and the appointment of Agassi as coach may well prove to be a very astute one.
The iconic American also completed his Grand Slam at the French Open in 1999, but Agassi went on to triumph in another four majors and reach three further finals.
Djokovic expressed a desire for a coach who experienced what he has been through and the 47-year-old is the only person who can effectively offer him that. Working with someone who found motivation to keep winning after reaching the pinnacle will be invaluable for the 12-time major winner.
There could be no better venue for the duo to try to begin turning things around than at Roland Garros. All eyes will be on Djokovic once more, but for very different reasons.