Why Novak Djokovic will be Rafael Nadal's biggest French Open obstacle
Rafael Nadal might well be considered the "King of Clay" but it's Novak Djokovic who is the in-form player in world tennis right now. Here, we examine exactly how the world no.1 could claim his first ever French Open title this summer.
The ‘King of Clay’ Rafael Nadal has his sights firmly set on clinching yet another Coupe des Mousquetaires in the coming few days as the French Open heats up, but despite his incredible record in Paris, there is one man who looks more than capable of getting in his way.
His name, of course, is Novak Djokovic.
Having struggled with injury for months in the lead-up to the start of 2015, the ever-smiling Majorcan was not afforded the best possible preparation for the year. In his absence, it’s the Djoker who has performed best of all with some scintillating displays of skill and craft from one tournament to the next.
In total, the two giants of world tennis have amassed an incredible 22 Grand Slam titles to date, which just goes to show how big of a say they have in deciding where the balance of power sways. No doubt, these two players are the biggest favourites in the modern game to push for victory at Roland Garros, but it’s the Spanish legend who can arguably boast the biggest success in the history of clay (although he is still shy of bettering Guillermo Vilas’ long-standing record).
So, with the “sticky stuff” all set to host the most illustrious and brightest of talents once more for the second Slam of the year, it’s time to take a look at exactly why it’s Djokovic who has the best chance of upsetting Nadal’s push for an unprecedented 10th title at Roland Garros.
Djoker is more serious than ever before
In sport, if there are two things which matter more than natural talent they are luck and momentum. When things aren’t going one’s way, it can be easy to become psychologically defeated. Facing a low point, it can often be something unexpected that helps an athlete get back on track and begin to play with exuberance. Harnessing that can often prove key to staying in that slipstream, but if it is achieved, it can often fuel an unstoppable trajectory.
Currently on a run of 22 matches without defeat, per the Press Association’s Tom Allnutt, the Serbian maestro has the much-needed impetus behind him to finally go all the way.
After all, he has rarely struggled with a lack of self-belief and he isn’t expected to be over-awed by the occasion at all. In fact, having never experienced the joy of lifting the giant silver trophy on centre court before, there is arguably a lot less pressure on his shoulders than there is on Nadal’s. Sure, he is the world No.1, but he has never been the ultimate clay-court performer; Nadal has.
That said, Nadal is not the same player he once was.
There will come a time when he will lose out at France’s Slam, and that time could be a lot closer than many expect. Indeed, while those behind the scenes, preparing Djokovic for two weeks of high-intensity tennis, will be keen not to overwhelm him with talk of an apogee, it’s clear that this year is certainly one of his best bets to go all out and secure a historic win.
Djokovic himself knows this to be true. Nadal can expect a real fight on their hands when they, as is expected, meet in the quarter-finals for an entertaining fight for superiority and if the 28-year-old’s poor form continues, he could be forced out early for the first time since Robin Soderling did it back in 2009.
Nadal might be “King”, but stats show Nole is ready to dethrone him
In the past five years alone, there have been a total of 10 meetings between the pair on clay and the results maintain that there is absolutely nothing to separate them.
To put that more plainly, Djokovic has won five of those, while the nine-time French Open champion, inevitably, has the other five. So far, so equal – however, delving more deeply into those figures reveals that it’s the form player who looks like he could plough ahead.
As reported by the ATP’s official site, the best player in the world right now has battled back against a wave of poor results in the past to almost place himself on par with Nadal whenever they meet each other on the brilliantly orange shale. Overall, the head-to-head record across all tour, Slam and Davis Cup matches has the world No. 7 leading at 23-20, but it’s Djoker who has experienced the better recent form.
In fact, their last three encounters on clay, which arrived in Rome, Roland Garros and most recently in Monte Carlo, it’s Djokovic who has prevailed with two triumphs – a far cry from the player who struggled to conjure up a single clay-court win against his old foe between 2006 and 2011.
Having won all the big tournaments he’s entered this year, it makes sense for Djokovic to feel ready – and judging by his recent comments, it looks as though he is finally set to take Nadal to task, as relayed by Sports 360’s Reem Abulleil.
“There is always a little bit of extra motivation for me coming into Roland Garros. It is obviously very encouraging knowing that I have won all of the big events from last October, and playing some of the best tennis of my life.”
Aggression and net-play will reap huge reward for the Serb
Analyzing their match-up at the Monte Carlo Masters semi-finals offers tennis aficionados everywhere a real insight into precisely what needs to happen for Djokovic to prevail.
Playing the tape back, it was obvious that Nadal had the better start to proceedings. Taking the opening two games with relative ease through some fiery serving and hard-hitting play, it looked as though he might power ahead to a fantastic victory. That proved to not be the case as Djokovic earned a deserved straight-sets win, and it was through his deployment of some well executed play at the net which saw him do so with aplomb.
Rafa worked tirelessly to batter his opponent into submission, but he didn’t rely on some sensational base-line movements counteracting that. Of course, this time around he’ll be expecting it a little more and ought to pull out all the stops and be even more proactive. Of course, it wasn’t simply strong strokes of the ball which Djoker counteracted, rather it was a mish-mash of short and long hits, too. Even this, he had a way to stop.
Breaking it down, it was one of the most effective uses of defence as a form of attack that we’ve seen this year. Unmoved by the relentless hammer that was Nadal, the 28-year-old from Belgrade, stuck to his guns in a show of defiance and tactical mastery to which there was little reply.
His best bet will be to stick to a similar plan whilst also keeping his dynamism intact – after all there are sure to be a number of frantic exchanges, and they could prove the difference at the end of the day.
No matter what happens, though, we can all expect a thoroughly enjoyable few weeks of top-class tennis.