Familiar foe Djokovic pursues a second ‘Djoker Slam’
Toronto: When the year’s first major concluded Down Under, there was only one thing on most people’s lips: Novak Djokovic, following his demolition job of Rafael Nadal, had guaranteed himself a third shot at a ‘Novak Slam’. Could he do it… again?
The Serb had been unsuccessful in his first attempt seven years ago (l. Nadal), but he wouldn’t be denied on the terre battue in 2016 (d. Andy Murray) when he became the first man since Rod Laver to hold all four Grand Slam titles at the same time.
Since that historic win, Djokovic’s pursuit of titles plateaued; he needed to do some soul-searching before returning with a bang—and how. The 32-year-old is three-for-three at Grand Slams, commencing Wimbledon last season (d. Kevin Anderson).
The Serb again went missing after his exploits in Australia this January and he wouldn’t make another final till the Madrid Open earlier this month where he beat fast-rising 20-year-old Stefanos Tsitsipas for his 33rd Masters 1000 title.
Talks of a “comeback”, however, were short-lived. Another conspicuously missing name had sprung back to life.
The ‘King of Clay’—who had himself endured a title-less streak since victory at the Rogers Cup (d. Tsitsipas) in Toronto last August—bludgeoned everyone in his path as he steamrolled to a record-extending 34th Masters 1000 crown at the Italian Open. Capping off his Roman conquest was a 6–0, 4–6, 6–1 humbling of the World No. 1.
[Quick trivia: Nadal dished out four bagel sets en route the title in Rome—Fernando Verdasco, Nikoloz Basilashvili and Jeremy Chardy being the other three recipients]
The gauntlet had been thrown. The dice cast. The Tour, currently in Nadal’s territory, was approaching the man’s citadel: Roland-Garros, where he has won an eye-popping eleven times. Yes, he has made all of the crushed earth his own over the course of an outlandish career, but with no title to show going in to this month’s showdown at the Foro Italico, the murmurs were getting louder. Even if only momentary, Nadal’s ruthless displays did their bit to quash all talks.
Of course, the clay court season thus far has had other storylines: such as Fabio Fognini’s maiden Masters 1000 triumph in Monte Carlo (d. Dusan Lajovic), Dominic Thiem winning Barcelona (d. Daniil Medvedev) without dropping a set and the return of 20-time Grand Slam champion Roger Federer, who had not played on clay since May 2016.
All said, however, while 126 other players will contest for the Coupe des Mousquetaires this fortnight, it doesn’t require much effort to predict the bout people expect to materialise on the third Sunday of the event: will it be a second four-for-four major sweep, or an unprecedented twelfth title at a Slam?
Sport, though, is a great leveller and success only comes through sheer effort. For both Djokovic and Nadal to cross swords for a 55th time on June 9—already an Open Era record (men’s) in terms of matches they’ve contested against one another—each has to overcome six challengers.
The draw ceremony took place on May 23 and revealed some surprises. Thiem and his good friend Sascha Zverev find themselves in the top half along with Djokovic, while Federer and Kei Nishikori have been drawn in Nadal’s side of the draw. Here is a look at how the four sections seem to shape up:
|1. Novak Djokovic||2. Rafael Nadal||3. Roger Federer||4. Dominic Thiem|
|5. Alexander Zverev||6. Stefanos Tsitsipas||7. Kei Nishikori||8. Juan Martín del Potro|
|9. Fabio Fognini||10. Karen Khachanov||11. Marin Cilic||12. Daniil Medvedev|
|13. Borna Coric||14. Gaël Monfils||15. Nikoloz Basilashvili||16. Marco Cecchinato|
|17. Diego Schwartzman||18. Roberto Bautista Agut||19. Guido Pella||20. Denis Shapovalov|
|21. Alex de Minaur||22. Lucas Pouille||23. Fernando Verdasco||24. Stan Wawrinka|
|25. Félix Auger-Aliassime||26. Gilles Simon||27. David Goffin||28. Kyle Edmund|
|29. Matteo Berrettini||30. Dusan Lajovic||31. Laslo Djere||32. Frances Tiafoe|
Top seed and 15-time major winner Djokovic opens his challenge against young Hubert Hurkacz, a strapping 22-year-old from Poland. While no one expects the 6’5” Hurkacz to trouble Djokovic in what will be the pair’s first face-off, the Serb can expect some resistance given his opponent’s big-hitting game style—centered around a big serve and flat, powerful groundstrokes off both wings. Another beanpole, the 6’6” Sam Querrey, could lie in wait in round two (Djokovic leads their head-to-head 8–2). The American famously knocked out Djokovic when they last faced off (Wimbledon 2016). World No. 28 Gilles Simon is a projected third round opponent (Djokovic leads 11–1) while Borna Coric could lie in wait in the last 16 (Djokovic leads 3–0). Sascha Zverev is a possible quarterfinalist (head-to-head equal 2–2).
Other players in this section include the swashbuckling 20-year-old Denis Shapovalov of Canada, the mercurial pair of Fognini and Nick Kyrgios, and Roberto Bautista-Agut.
Semifinalist pick: Novak Djokovic
Thiem, the World No. 4, is the highest seed in this quarter. A runner-up last year (l. Nadal), the 25-year-old has been among the three best clay court players in the last three years but has not had much silverware to show for his efforts. The Austrian commences his campaign against USA’s Tommy Paul and could face Sascha Bublik and Kyle Edmund respectively in the second and third rounds. A mouth-watering last-16 clash with either Gaël Monfils (Thiem leads 4–0) or Fernando Verdasco (Verdasco leads 4–0) is a possibility which would, quite literally, be a near-perfect appetiser ahead of another big-hitting showdown, potentially against the Tower of Tandil—Juan Martín del Potro (del Potro leads 4–0), the World No. 9.
Del Potro, meanwhile, has his hands full right from the get-go as he faces 23-year-old Nicolas Jarry, the 6’5” Chilean. The prodigiously talented 18-year-old Félix Auger-Aliassime of Canada could provide the Argentine a sterner test should they meet in the last 32. Lucas Pouille, the second-highest ranked Frenchman (behind Monfils), and the towering Karen Khachanov are some of the other powerful shot-makers in this loaded quarter.
Semifinalist pick: Dominic Thiem
Whatever may be at stake for the two best players as they enter this tournament, no one will argue about the status of the current World No. 3: the biggest crowd-puller there is in tennis today. Federer, who famously got the monkey off his back when he triumphed on Court Philippe Chatrier a decade ago, makes his return to the French Open for the first time since the 2015 edition when he lost to compatriot and eventual champion Stan Wawrinka. Federer’s return to active clay court competition this year, while not forgettable, had its share of highs and lows. The 37-year-old played at a high level—despite squandering match points in a defeat in Madrid (l. Thiem) and an eventual walkover in Rome (to Tsitsipas)—and enters the second major with a 22–3 record for the year (including titles in Miami and Dubai besides a runner-up showing in Indian Wells).
Italians lurk in the third seed’s path. First up for Federer is Lorenzo Sonego while Matteo Berrettini and Marco Cecchinato could, respectively, be potential third and fourth round adversaries. Tunisia’s Malek Jaziri is a probable second round opponent (Federer leads 2–0). The promising Tsitsipas could lie in wait in the quarterfinals.
Other prominent names in this section include Wawrinka, Diego Schwartzman and Marin Cilic besides youngsters Casper Ruud and Frances Tiafoe.
[Quick trivia: Currently, Cecchinato is the last player to have beaten Djokovic in a major]
Semifinalist pick: Stefanos Tsitsipas
Nadal, the most decorated clay-court player of all time, headlines the final quarter and couldn’t have asked for a better start to his title defense. The Spaniard will open against qualifiers in the first two rounds before a possible last 32 clash against David Goffin (Nadal leads 3–1). Georgia’s Nikoloz Basilashvili is a projected fourth round adversary (Nadal leads 3–0) while Nishikori could pose the second seed’s earliest challenge in the quarterfinal (Nadal leads 10–2).
Medvedev, Alex de Minaur and Laslo Djere are some of the promising youngsters in this part of the draw.
Semifinalist pick: Rafael Nadal
Semifinal 1: Djokovic d. Thiem
Semifinal 2: Nadal d. Tsitsipas
Final verdict: Nadal d. Djokovic