Novak Djokovic’s quest to win the 2013 French Open has already begun. While Paris’ towering Grand Slam title cannot be won in February, the world ATP No. 1-ranked player can improve his odds as the favorite at Roland Garros in late May.
Consider Djokovic’s primary rivals. Clay King Rafael Nadal looks to grind back from injuries. Former French Open champion Roger Federer faces his mortality on clay. U.S. Open champion Andy Murray must answer the bell to an unspectacular clay-court career.
There is less uncertainty about Djokovic, but his stock could rise or fall depending on several tournament tests and performances to come. If he can win with the following blueprint, he may very well hold up Coupe des Mousquetaires.
Offensive First Strike
Djokovic closed out his 2013 Australian Open title with two very impressive sets against Murray. He was The Terminator, seemingly programmed to attack with an uncompromising assault, even after dropping the first set. His barrage of groundstrokes was covered at net for more efficient finishes to the tune of 35 winners in 41 attempts. This was the big difference in wearing down his spirited rival. Could this be an upgraded Djokovic 3.0?
He has always been most impressive when hitting with fearless resolve. His exceptional run in 2011 peaked with the opening two sets of the Wimbledon final against Nadal. He unleashed an unconventional display of laser groundstrokes on the fast, skidding lawns. He overwhelmed Nadal’s defense with cross-court scorchers that held back nothing. It was this mentality that gave him control of his destiny.
Europe’s red clay has usually posed greater difficulties for hard-court champions like Djokovic. Unlike Nadal and other clay-court specialists, Djokovic’s lengthier stride does not slide so naturally into his shots.
Djokovic’s defensive groundstrokes must handle balls that bounce more imprecisely on clay, making it more difficult to hit the ball cleaner and on the rise. It can lull his sense of aggressive shot-making and nudge him into the depths of the baseline, waiting for the higher bounce before guiding it back with intended depth.
His special skill of turning defense into offense can be mitigated. More time and space between players gives clay-court specialists room to scramble back to a more neutral position. How can Djokovic best impose his own advantages?
It will take a mixture of aggression and patience. He can take the ball early after coercing shorter shots from opponents. It’s the kind of strategy young Andre Agassi nearly pulled off over 20 years ago in back-to-back French Open finals. He could hit through opponents with keen anticipation and reflexes. Djokovic has this similar capability.
Prepare to Defeat Rafael Nadal
Fans, media and the rest of the world can wonder about Nadal’s progress and whether or not he will return to playing his indomitable clay-court tennis. Djokovic must plan as if this is a reincarnation of 2010 Nadal. There must be no letdown.
The entire ATP tour has chased Nadal on red clay as if he were the white whale of their obsessive tennis ambitions. Djokovic has been the most successful player against Nadal the past two years, but in 2012 he was pushed back at Monte Carlo, Rome and Paris. It was Nadal who survived sodden red clay and who celebrated with camera shots of the Eiffel Tower.
This time around, Nadal may not play in the Masters 1000 tournaments at Indian Wells and Miami. There won’t be early, direct opportunities for top opponents like Djokovic to combat Nadal on hard courts and perhaps grab the early mental advantage heading into the heart of the clay-court season.
Preparing for clay-court Nadal while playing on hard courts may be more oranges than apples, but Djokovic could sharpen his attacking mentality for clay. Still, the difficulty of defeating Nadal on clay requires greater attrition. He will have to deal with moonball topspin and calculate when to unleash his energy. Djokovic hits better when he steps closer to the baseline, which can aid his transition to clay-court nets for more finishes.
He must continue to sharpen his offensive prowess. The white whale will not be easy to conquer.
Dominate the Field
When Pete Sampras ruled tennis from 1993-1995, he shattered the competitive balance of power amongst the ATP. Like his big serve and attacking game, he forced other players from their strengths. Sans clay or injuries, and his own flirtations with baseline exchanges, Sampras imposed his will on tennis.
Djokovic has also seen the way Federer and Nadal dominated the tour. He headed the triumvirate in 2011, but has gained greater experience and acumen in learning to be a champion. The time is now for Djokovic to sweep aside all contenders and establish his own autocracy.
The legends of tennis past have established their aura through winning big. If Djokovic sweeps aside early-round opponents and easily disposes of top-10 contenders, the greater likelihood he has to vanquish his rivals and crush their morale.
His goal to win the French Open can be enhanced by creating an aura of invincibility. He wants to be the star that walks out to each match with the eyes of the world and the fears of opponents upon him. He wants to be the standard of men’s tennis for a good, long time.
Can Djokovic translate his on-court heroics into the ATP locker rooms? Will his domination be the main topic of water-cooler conversations? Does he have more room to improve and distance himself from the other champions?
Djokovic has proven his resilience and tough-minded approach to tennis, but if wins the mental battles he can create doubt and defeat in other players. Then the French Open title would be just the beginning of another epic chapter in his Hall of Fame career.