PARIS: Novak Djokovic is just two wins away from becoming the first man in half a century to win all four Grand Slams twice, but once again Roland Garros is threatening to turn against him. The world number one’s collection of 17 Slams is made up of eight Australian Opens, five Wimbledon titles, three triumphs at the US Open but only one so far in Paris.
Rafael Nadal is mostly responsible for Djokovic’s slim pickings in the French capital, capturing 12 titles, winning 98 matches and losing just twice since both men made their debuts in 2005. Djokovic, who struggled with injury and mood swings before beating Pablo Carreno Busta in the quarter-finals on Wednesday, has always endured a love-hate relationship with the French Open.
His former coach Boris Becker believes that the Serb is feeling the pressure as he gets closer to his place in the record books. “No, it wasn’t that at all,” snapped back the top seed after his 4-6, 6-2, 6-3, 6-4 win over Carreno Busta, insisting the problem was physical-neck and shoulder injuries-not mental. “I had to deal with that. I told you guys many times I’m over it. I’m not thinking about it at all. I mean, zero percent.” Djokovic’s one French Open triumph came in 2016 which allowed him to complete the career Grand Slam.
However, falling short in Paris in 2011 and 2015 prevented him from emulating Rod Laver in clinching a rare calendar Grand Slam. Roger Federer defeated him in the semi-finals in 2011, ending Djokovic’s 43-match winning run while, four years later, his loss in the final to Stan Wawrinka dented his hopes again. The chapters of disappointment are many for a player whose first two visits to Paris ended with injury retirements in 2005 an 2006. In the 2012 final against Nadal, having won eight games in a row, he was up a break and pushing to level the match at two sets apiece when rain brought an overnight suspension.
‘Always doing this’
Play resumed the following day but Djokovic’s momentum was lost and a double-fault on championship point completed his misery. Twelve months later, Djokovic was poised for a semi-final win over Nadal with just a routine putaway required to help give him a 5-3 final set lead and a chance to serve for the match. However, he chose a spectacular smash rather than a soothing touch. He tumbled into the net, losing the point and Nadal pounced to eventually take the tie after four hours and 37 minutes.
More was to follow. In 2018, he lost a quarter-final to world number 72 Marco Cecchinato of Italy. Last year he was beaten in the semi-finals by Dominic Thiem in conditions which he likened to playing in a “hurricane”. That match took two days to complete, featured numerous rain stoppages and winds so strong that a courtside umbrella was sent flying across court. This year, the French Open is again being played in damp, cold weather with the temperature dropping as low as 10 degrees (50F) on some days.
On Wednesday, Djokovic wore two shirts for his quarter-final, the evening chill not helping his physical state. He required treatment from the trainer on his neck and shoulder and at one stage appeared to make a gesture to his box that he was on the verge of quitting. Had he had done so it would have been his seventh retirement from a Grand Slam tournament. “As the match went on, I felt better, didn’t feel as much pain,” said Djokovic. “I had some neck issues and some shoulder issues. I’ll just say that. I don’t want to get really too much into it.”
Carreno Busta seemed to cast doubt on the gravity of Djokovic’s ailments. “Probably the last years he’s always doing this when he has problems on court,” said Carreno Busta, the beneficiary when Djokovic was defaulted at the US Open, the Serb’s only defeat this year. “Maybe it’s the pressure or something that he needs to do it. But, he continues playing normal. I don’t know if he’s in pain really. Ask him.” Djokovic will next face Stefanos Tsitsipas in Friday’s semi-finals while Nadal tackles Diego Schwartzman of Argentina.- AFP