Novak Djokovic's quest for greatness: Much at stake in the French Open final
The quest for greatness brings Novak Djokovic to Roland Garros each season. The Serb has been nibbling at the fruits of greatness for several years now — 11 grand slam titles bear testimony to the supremely fit Djokovic’s iron clad grip over the tennis world. The world No.1 is so far ahead in the rankings that it seems like someone will need to journey to the Mars and back just to catch him. But for a true crunch at greatness, Djokovic needs to win on Sunday and complete his full set of grand slam titles.
An unlikely rival stares him in the eye this time. Djokovic has made four of the past five French Open finals. Rafael Nadal bested him twice whilst Stanislas Wawrinka subjected him to a surprise four-set defeat last year. Andy Murray stands in his way now, with the Scot also looking to win in Paris for the first time in his career.
Only seven men have won all four major titles. If a calendar grand slam is the holy grail of the sport, a career slam sits just beneath it as a true test of a player’s greatness. Incidentally, the last time two top seeds met in a final looking to win a grand slam for the first time was in 1984.
And the two men featuring in that final know all about the pain that must be teasing and tugging at Djokovic’s heart. Ivan Lendl worked his way back from two sets down to destroy John McEnroe’s hopes to collect the Coupe des Mousquetaires. As fate would decree, McEnroe never came closer to a French Open title while Lendl battled in vain for a Wimbledon title through the rest of his career.
Djokovic turned 29 a couple of weeks ago and the window of opportunity will not remain open for far too longer. The emergence of Dominic Thiem and the promise of players such as Alexander Zverev point to a passing of the torch when the circus returns to Paris in the summer of 2017. In the moment though, Djokovic reigns supreme, with an opportunity to be the first man since Rod Laver in 1964 to own all four grand slam trophies.
The oldest man to have completed the career slam was Andre Agassi, when he won the French Open in 1999. And presto, he was aged 29 when he did that. Naturally, the markers that hang around this final are poignant at several levels.
Djokovic has worked extremely hard to earn his shot at greatness. An insanely regimented fitness routine and a diet discipline that could put a monk to shame are just two of the things that have fuelled his quest. The Serbian could use the calm of a monk later this evening as he tries one more time to complete his grand slam collection.
The return of serve will be key for Djokovic. The conditions in Paris this fortnight have suited the return more than serve, with damp courts and heavy balls negating the serve. There is no doubt that the Serb will look to control the passage of play with a solid return game.
Murray has discovered a taste for dirt after appearing nearly irrelevant on clay for several years. The man who lost three previous semifinals in Paris played supremely well on Friday to get past the defending champion, Wawrinka.
Murray played some of the most aggressive clay court tennis of his career to outplay the Swiss 74-47 on baseline rallies, a big factor in every contest at the Roland Garros. Interestingly, Murray has faced Djokovic in six grand slam finals — losing all four in Melbourne, but winning against him in London and New York.
Winning the title on Sunday could set Djokovic up for a calendar slam — he will be the obvious favourite to defend Wimbledon and the US Open. Djokovic is playing for more than a title against Murray. If he wins, he would also hold all four slam titles at the same time – a non-calendar slam – a feat that neither Nadal or Roger Federer could manage. He is playing for a chance to cement his place in history forever, a chance to be considered in the debate for the greatest player of all time.
Murray is moving well, drawing from his lessons at the Sanchez-Casal Academy where he learnt his formative lessons. The Scot will need to be at his best against Djokovic — serving a high percentage of first balls and keeping away from the Djokovic backhand as far as possible.
“It’s really my job to make it as difficult as possible for him,” explained Murray of his plans for the final. “When I have played my best tennis, it has been by making every point really tough and long, and extending the rallies, and not giving anything for free.”
“Because for the best players, when you do get free games, it’s nice,” added Murray.“The more you can make any of the top players work, the better, and I will try to do that at the beginning of the match.”
Djokovic is clearly aware of the gravity of his challenge on Sunday, in his sixth straight Grand Slam final. "I've put myself in a position in which I wanted to be in of course ever since last year's final," he said."It's always high on the priority list when I start a season, thinking about Roland Garros."
Winning will help the Serbian break away from a large group of men and women who have failed to overcome the Roland Garros challenge — Frank Sedgman, Ashley Cooper, Louise Brough Clapp, Virginia Wade, John Newcombe, Pete Sampras, Jimmy Connors, Boris Becker, Stefan Edberg, Martina Hingis and Lindsay Davenport.
Fred Perry (1935), Don Budge (1938), Rod Laver (1962), Roy Emerson (1964), Andre Agassi (1999), Roger Federer (2009) and Rafael Nadal (2010) are the seven men to have completed their collection of the four majors. Djokovic wants nothing more than to join this league of champions on Sunday.
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The ministry said a new vaccine pass, approved by the French parliament on Sunday, "applies to everyone, to volunteers and to elite sportspeople, including those coming from abroad, until further notice."