Monday, June 9, 2014

Will Djokovic ever win the French Open? Or even another slam?

This year seemed to be the golden opportunity for Novak Djokovic to win the elusive French Open title. The biggest obstacle to win the title, Rafael Nadal, had not been too impressive after the Australian Open and he played his worst pre-French Open clay season despite being able to win the Madrid Masters and make the final at the Rome Masters. Djokovic had a wrist injury during the Monte Carlo Masters but the wrist was healthy for the Rome Masters which he won, defeating Nadal in the final. So everything seemed fine for him before the French Open.

After the early losses of potential black horses Stan Wawrinka and Kei Nishikori, the French Open was a two-horse race between Djokovic and Nadal, like in the previous couple of years, and it ended with a Djokovic-Nadal final. Despite winning the first set, Djokovic's performance was lame. He couldn't hit through Nadal's defense often enough and Nadal could exploit it if Djokovic left the court open. And mentally his performance was poor. He lost his serve in the last games of the last three sets, being on serve in second and fourth sets. And the match ended with a double fault, just like the French Open final two years ago.

I am starting to believe that Djokovic just doesn't have what it takes to beat Nadal at Roland Garros. He can beat Nadal in Masters events on clay but Nadal will always bring his best to the French Open. Plus there is the pressure of the missing slam from the Career Grand Slam, which doesn't help him.

I think Djokovic's chances to win the French Open depend on how fast he will decline, how fast Nadal will decline, and how fast the new generation will come. Given Nadal's injury history, one can assume Djokovic will have a couple of years more on the top of the game. Plus there may be a year when Nadal has an injury, giving others a great chance to win the title. But Nadal's bad year may come too late for Djokovic. Djokovic is 27 and he can't keep his current level for many more years; next year he will already be older than Roger Federer when he won his only French Open title. Also, there will be new players coming to the top of the game. The tour has been dominated by players in their late 20s plus few in their early 30s. But recently there has been some good performances by younger players. Kei Nishikori was already close to beat the French Open champion Nadal in the Madrid Masters final before a back injury forced him to retire. If he can still develop, he will be a big challenger for the ageing Djokovic. Ernests Gulbis' semifinal run at Roland Garros was also impressive, and if he can start to live up to his potential and develop, he is another challenger. And there are young players like Grigor Dimitrov and Dominic Thiem with lots of potential. In a couple of years, Nadal may already have declined and isn't anymore Djokovic's tougest opponent even on clay but there may be other players who keep him from winning the French Open.

So what I think about Djokovic's chances to win the French Open? I think he still has years to win it. David Ferrer is 32 and still he is playing excellent clay tennis. Nadal will have issues with his body and can't keep on winning year after year. Also, I don't see another as dominant a clay-courter as Nadal emerging, so I believe Novak will still have a few more chances. But even if he didn't have to play against Nadal, he will have to play with the pressure of winning the missing Grand Slam title. One can wonder if that has been the reason why he hasn't been able to beat Nadal at Roland Garros unlike at all clay Masters.

Today's loss was Djokovic's third consecutive lost Grand Slam final. Add to that, his losses at last year's French Open and this year's Australian Open were tight five-set losses to the eventual champions. One can wonder why the player who was so dominant in 2011 cannot anymore win slams; his last slam is the Australian Open last year. I think things started to go wrong for him at last year's French Open. He lost the semifinal against the eventual champion Nadal despite leading the final set with a break. After that we saw a lame performance in the Wimbledon final. In last year's US Open final, he wasted lots of chances in the third set, eventually losing it, and played a bad fourth set after that, losing the match. And today's final didn't look like he has the mental fortitude to win.

Maybe he is starting to feel pressure to win a slam. He hasn't been able to repeat the three-slam season of 2011. If things are getting hard, he seems unable to get over those difficulties the way he did in the exhaustingly-long 2012 Australian Open final which he won despite being down a break in the final set. I definitely believe he will win more slams, he is just so good. But if he is facing trouble in the match, he may not find the way to get over it.


  1. Good article! Its worrying for Novak's career ambitions that he is unable to crack the Nadal code here but it is Roland Garros and personally I don't think there's any need to worry about his overall Slam mentality unless he goes the full year without winning one. People have pointed out that he's lost a lot of close matches at Slams, most unsettling was the Australian Open this year, but he has also won some very tight matches in the last twelve months - the semi finals at Wimbledon and the US Open. He's lost in finals to playing better tennis; sure his physical woes in the third set were alarming today but the main reason for his failures in his last three Slam finals were that he was against people simply playing better tennis rather than mental lapses.

    Before this tournament I thought it was his year. However unlike the last two years when leading up to his match against Nadal I actually thought Nadal would beat him (I'm not the best at making my mind up!). The key in this match up is the cross court backhand vs Nadal's down the line forehand and I thought Nadal was looking good on that shot in the last two matches,

    Djokovic feels the pressure against Nadal. He has to play a low percentage game to win which is incredibly difficult in a best of 5 match on Clay. Having said that, I think roles will be reversed in the late Summer and if they meet in New York I think Djokovic will win. Even if not, I think he will win that tournament, If not,and in the absence of a Wimbledon triumph, alarm bells will justifiably start ringing.

    1. Sometimes I am a bit surprised about how people are questioning Novak's mentality as he is still winning lots of big titles. For sure, having no slams for over a year is a disappointment considering his level of play but he has always lost to the eventual champion, and it is hard to say if he would have had potential to beat those players.

      I would say his losses to Nadal at Roland Garros were against a better clay-courter, even though last year's semi was a winnable match with a break in the fifth. As for his loss to Nadal in the US Open final, I think he could have won it with his best game but his best game just wasn't there at that time. Still, he should've done better in the fourth set, that looked like lacking the faith.

      His loss to Murray in the Wimbledon final was a loss to a better grass-courter, just like in their Olympic semi. And the loss to Wawrinka in Australia wasn't so bad, in my opinion. They had had tight matches already last year and it came down to a few points, this time for Wawrinka.

      I don't see anything to worry about Novak's slam success. Unless Rafa plays a great hardcourt summer or Murray finds his form, Novak must be the favourite for the US Open. And unless Roger and Andy find their form or Rafa improves heavily from last years, Novak can also win Wimbledon.