French Open 2016: Novak Djokovic, at 29, waits to see ‘what life has organised for me’

Novak Djokovic is aiming to win the French Open for the first time this year as he celebrates his 29th birthday

World No1 Novak Djokovic turns 29 on a very wet, very grey opening day at the French Open.

But even though this is the one Grand Slam so far to elude the man who has dominated men’s tennis for most of the last two years, one suspects the weather will not dampen his mood on 22nd May in Paris.

For as he prepares to play his 12th Roland Garros, he leads his closest rival, Andy Murray, by almost twice the ranking points, and come Monday, he will have notched up 200 weeks as the top of the pile. By the end of month, he will have led the rest for 100 straight weeks.

And there has been little sign of that dominance abating. After winning 11 titles from 15 finals last year—all at Grand Slam and Masters level bar two 500s—he has already won five titles this year, a 37-3 match record, and 14-1 against top-10 opposition.

A record-equalling sixth Australian Open, back-to-back titles at the biggest Masters of the year in Indian Wells and Miami, followed by the Madrid title and the Rome final are enough to boost anyone’s confidence. And although he suffered a rare loss to Murray—on the Briton’s own 29th birthday—in Rome, he had fought through Rafael Nadal and then an on-fire Kei Nishikori late the day before to get there.

He was, he asserted, still happy with his clay preparation.

“I got 10 matches out of two weeks, which is maximum I could get out of Madrid and Rome: a perfect way of getting the match play I needed before the French Open. So I can comfortably say that in terms of match play I’m ready.

“Now is just the fine tuning and getting that necessary supply of energy and freshness to play best of five on the most physically demanding surface.”

For a man with the kind of resume that Djokovic has built—and he now owns the same number of Major titles as Rod Laver and Bjorn Borg and more Masters titles than anyone else, 29 of them—the French Open is one of the biggest, along with Olympic gold, that he has yet to tick off.

He has made little secret of his desire to complete his Grand Slam set—something only seven other men have ever done. And if he could win in Paris this year, he would remain in a position to achieve something still more significant. Only Don Budge and Laver have won the men’s calendar Grand Slam.

As Serena Williams showed last year, when she came within touching distance of achieving it at the US Open, it is an extraordinary physical and mental challenge, but Djokovic refuses to be pressured by such expectations.

“I feel excited to participate in this year’s Roland Garros, as any other year. Of course the expectations are big not just from my side but from people around knowing that this is the only Grand Slam I never won.

“Of course people are very eager to find out whether or not I can make it this year, and that kind of anticipation existed and it was present also in the last couple of years. So it’s not the first time I get to encounter this kind of sensation and pressure and so forth.”

And it is not as though he has not come close to winning here. Djokovic has made the finals in three of the last four years, and reached at least the semis in the last five years. He has a 48-11 record on Parisian clay, but like everyone else, he has had the very particular challenge of playing in the same era as Roland Garros’s most successful champion, Nadal.

In 2012, 2013 and 2014, Djokovic lost to Nadal, but last year seemed to present a date with destiny. He beat the nine-time champion in the quarter-finals, and got the better of Murray in a tough five-setter in the semis. It was his misfortune, then, to meet Stan Wawrinka—who has often given him problems in Grand Slams before—playing at his blistering best. The French Open escaped the Serb’s grasp again.

Now 29, and with so many near misses here, perhaps there is a growing urgency to his campaign in 2016.

“Well, to be honest, age is just a number for me, so I still feel like I have plenty more years ahead of me, which gives me more comfort in terms of opportunities I’m going to have at the title of Roland Garros—which releases more pressure for me this year.

“So of course I anticipate myself, as everybody else, to try to get my hands on this title this year. But if it doesn’t happen, there is always another year, because I don’t have any intention of slowing down yet.”

And if it never happens?

“Even if it never happens, I need to be very humble and realistic, see my results and my career, and need to be satisfied with what I have achieved so far. Even if my career was done tomorrow, I made some achievements that I must be proud of. So that’s how I approach things. 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.”

Things start well enough in the opening week for the top seed, so he should acclimatize nicely via an opener against the 100-ranked Yen-Hsun Lu, then a qualifier, followed by the second lowest ranked seed in Round 3, Federico Delbonis.

Round 4 may bring seeds Bernard Tomic or Roberto Bautista Agut, though there is room for some teenage talent to burst through via Borna Coric or Taylor Fritz.

The quarters offer up Tomas Berdych, who has won just two matches in 25 against Djokovic, or David Ferrer, who has lost his last 10 matches to the Serb.

Nadal looms large in his semi-final, and if they so reach their allotted places for a record 50th meeting, it will fall on Nadal’s 30th birthday. Djokovic will surely, though, take only positives from their long and formidable rivalry. The last time Nadal beat him was in that 2014 final right here, since when Djokovic has notched up victories on the clay of Monte-Carlo, Paris and Rome.

He does at least remain pragmatic, and supremely calm, about whatever comes his way. Could he imagine never winning the French title?

“I can, because so far it hasn’t happened. So I’m imagining it every day. But I’m also imagining myself being the winner. So let’s see what life has organised for me.”

Life could organise another unexpected final, this time against the in-form clay player of the spring, Andy Murray, with the Briton knowing he has beaten both Nadal and Djokovic in the space of two weeks.

Both Djokovic and Murray open their campaigns in Monday’s schedule, while Nadal will begin on Tuesday.

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