The second Grand Slam tennis tournament of 2011, the French Open, begins Sunday in Paris. Much of the attention will be on Novak Djokovic of Serbia, who is a remarkable 37-0 this year and is looking to dethrone defending champion and five-time French Open winner Rafael Nadal of Spain.
In recent years, nine-time Grand Slam winner Rafael Nadal of Spain has been virtually unbeatable on clay, with only eight losses in his past 201 matches on the surface. In fact, one of his nicknames is “King of Clay.”
However, this season has been owned by another player, Serbia’s Novak Djokovic, who is undefeated on all surfaces. The 23-year-old Serb has moved up to number-two in the world rankings and enters the French Open with the best start to a year since American John McEnroe began the 1984 season 42-0. Although for world number one Nadal - who has lost to Djokovic in two consecutive clay court tournament finals - the true test of a champion is winning on the big stages.
“The most important thing is be confident with myself, be happy with how I’m doing. I’m doing everything that I can," said Nadal. "The big champions in my opinion is not totally when we are able to win every week, it is when they are able to wait for the right moment. And I am waiting."
Djokovic has every reason to be confident; winning all seven tournaments he has entered, including the Australian Open in January, his second major title. This year he is a combined 7-0 against Nadal and 16-time Grand Slam champion Roger Federer of Switzerland, both of whom have given Djokovic troubles on the court in the past. The charismatic Serb credits his recent form to Serbia’s Davis Cup win last year.
“Everything started from Davis Cup," said Djokovic. "All these years I’ve been in a learning process, working hard and waiting one day for everything to come together. I’ve been winning major events before, but I didn’t have this consistency and I didn’t have the right mental approach when I play big players, against Roger or Rafa, just because I didn’t have a lot of self-belief and confidence that I could win against those guys,” said Djokovic.
Djokovic, who will rise to world number-one if Nadal fails to win the French Open, is reluctant to assume the role as the favorite, insisting that the Spaniard’s overall dominance on clay sets him apart.
“Let’s be clear. He’s the king of clay," stated Djokovic. "He’s the best player ever to play this game on this surface. Especially, you know, he has been so dominant on clay courts. Yes, I have won against him twice, which is, I think, an incredible achievement for me and gives me a lot of confidence coming up to the French Open. But it’s only a couple tournaments this year and he has been so dominant on this surface for many, many years,” stated Djokovic.
Other contenders on the men’s side include Britain’s Andy Murray, who pushed Djokovic to the brink of defeat in the semifinals in Rome, and Federer, who despite a recent fall-off in form, is always dangerous at the Grand Slams.
As for the women, former world number one Maria Sharapova of Russia has emerged as a favorite after winning the recent Rome tournament on clay. She won’t have to deal with top Americans Serena and Venus Williams who are both sidelined with injuries. With her improved fitness on clay, Sharapova has a good chance to win the only Grand Slam that has eluded her.
“I’ve always said that with every year I felt better and better on it because when I first came on the tour I wasn’t exactly the strongest girl on the tour," said Sharapova. "I didn’t have the strongest legs. I never felt like I recovered as easily from matches, going from one tough match to another. And with every year, I felt like I’ve really improved that,” said Sharapova.
Current number one, Caroline Wozniacki of Denmark, looks to silence her critics and win her maiden Grand Slam. Defending champion Francesca Schiavone of Italy will be aiming for another magical run.