French Open 2015: Novak Djokovic is ‘here with a purpose’ – and feeling the love

Novak Djokovic begins his French Open campaign with a win over Jarkko Nieminen as he bids for his first title in Paris

A philosophical Chinese sage once suggested that the longest of journeys had to begin with a single step, and although the path of Novak Djokovic to the last title in his Grand Slam trophy cabinet may not be a 1,000 miles long, the French Open has remained stubbornly out of reach despite the world No1 reaching the semis at Roland Garros six times and the final twice.

For in a decade of playing at the French Open, during which Djokovic has only twice fallen short of the quarter-finals, he has been unable to claim the title at a tournament dominated by the man he has played more often than any other, Rafael Nadal. Indeed the first of their 43 meetings was at this very place, and Djokovic has since lost three semis and two finals to Nadal.

Of course the best player in the world is not unique in having his Parisian ambitions thwarted by the nine-time and defending champion Nadal. Roger Federer, during the years he headed the tour at No1, came up against and lost to Nadal at Roland Garros time and again: every year between 2005 and 2008, and again in the 2011 final.

However, Federer’s one victory came on his 11th visit—a sign, perhaps, that this will be Djokovic’s year? Certainly if form is any guide, the current No1 is many pundits’ favourite this time around.

Djokovic arrived in Paris on a 22-match winning streak and a 35-2 win-loss run in 2015. He won both clay tournaments he played, both of them Masters, in Monte-Carlo and Rome, and that after winning the Australian Open, Indian Wells and Miami. It has been an extraordinary opening to 2015, one that has honed his already sharp tennis with that extra confidence:

“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… coming into Roland Garros with that amount of confidence helps, encourages me to step on the court and compete.

“I have had this particular situation before, and especially in the last two years where people were speculating, is this the year or not? Thinking about how far I can go. Can I win the title or not. I was a few times very close. Didn’t manage to do it, but that doesn’t discourage me. I’m here once again with a purpose, with a reason, and I will try to get myself in a position to win a trophy. But I can’t predict anything, I can’t guarantee I can go all the way. I just need to try to do what I do best, and that is taking one day at a time.”

Djokovic’s one piece of bad luck, though, was to draw Nadal unusually early, a possible quarter-final meet, courtesy of a relatively poor run of clay form from the Spaniard. Aside from losing to Djokovic in the Monte-Carlo final, Nadal went out in his second match in Barcelona to Fabio Fognini, in the Madrid final to Andy Murray, and in the Rome quarters to Stan Wawrinka. After such strong runs in each of those tournaments in the past, his ranking slipped to No7, his lowest ranking in a decade. What’s more, he now had just one win over Djokovic in their last six meetings—his victory in the final here last year.

Little wonder that Djokovic was confident, little wonder that he was, for many, the favourite to win the title in 2015.

But all that was further down this long road of Roland Garros. Djokovic’s first hurdle was Finn Jarkko Nieminen, who was playing in his 12th French Open and had yet to reach the quarter-finals. Neither of his career titles was on clay and he had won just two clay matches this year. The left-handed 33-year-old had beaten the Serb once in their five meetings, but that was back in 2009—and with his ranking now at 87, his chances looked altogether slimmer.

Sure enough, Djokovic raced to a quick lead, 6-2, in 35 minutes, but the aggressive, flat-hitting game of the Finn turned the tables in the second set to take a 4-1 lead. He then served for the set at 5-3, but Djokovic is at his most dangerous when threatened, and he made the timely break back, the start of a five-game streak that broke the Finn again and took the set, 7-5, winning 20 of the last 25 points.

The Djokovic streak continued in the third set with another four straight games, but the Finn halted the flood, and saved three match points to go 2-5. Djokovic, though, made no mistake in securing the win, 6-2, on his fifth match point after just over two hours.

He acknowledged that the match had been a test: “It was a challenge for me to come back to the court again for the first match after Rome finals. And obviously it’s been a year since I played on Philippe Chatrier. Of course, I was aware of the quality and experience of my opponent, who showed why he’s been a successful, consistent player for so many years. He can play. He can swing through the ball and be very aggressive. And he was the better player for most of the second set. Then I managed to come back and play some good shots, stayed patient, stayed calm. Overall it was a very solid performance.”

So Djokovic’s fortunes continue to rise, even in the growing affection he has for and from the home crowd: He held them in the palm of his hand when he afterwards joked on court in French with Cedric Pioline. Did he feel the love?

“It is very welcome to have the crowd support, so I hope I can have them on my side during this tournament. But as I mentioned today on the court, there are some moments in my career that are really memorable… one of the nicest moments I have experienced was here last year in the closing ceremony against Nadal when I lost, and I received very emotional applause which, in my eyes, sounded like ‘we respect your effort and want you to come back next year and keep trying to win the tournament.’”

It proved to a road less trodden for No10 seed Grigor Dimitrov, however. The next highest seed in Nadal’s segment lost to American Jack Sock in straight sets, 7-6(7), 6-2, 6-3 in a little under two hours. Also in this section, No30 seed Adrian Mannarino fell to Jurgen Melzer.

Djokovic next plays either Gilles Muller or Paolo Lorenzi, with one of a pair of young Australians in the third round: Thanasi Kokkinakis or Bernard Tomic. The other seeds in Djokovic’s eighth of the draw also remain intact, Kevin Anderson and Richard Gasquet.

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