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Chasing Laver


Djokovic© Getty ImagesFollowing his triumphs at Wimbledon, the US Open and Australian Open, Novak Djokovic will look to write himself into history books with victory at Roland Garros.

Will Novak Djokovic succeed where Pete Sampras, Roger Federer and Rafael Nadal all fell just short? The World No. 1 goes into Roland Garros aiming to become the first man to hold all four major titles since the great Rod Laver in 1969.

While Novak Djokovic managed to get his hands on the trophy at the Dubai Duty Free Tennis Championships in early 2010, the quality of his tennis at times left a lot to be desired. His serving in particular was woeful; the Serb delivered 10 double faults in the semi-finals and 12 more in the final before eventually prevailing.

When I asked him earlier that week why he was attempting to make wholesale changes to his serve at such a relatively late stage in his career, he said that if there was even the slightest chance of an improvement, then the risk was worth taking. Though his resolve must have been severely tested by week’s end with each miscued serve, he joked after the final, “If I can serve like this and still win tournaments, just wait until I start serving well.”

“Djokovic has an opportunity to elevate himself to an even higher plane”

Patience is a virtue and a little over two years later, Djokovic now stands on the brink of becoming the first player in 42 years to hold all four Grand Slam titles at one time. Incredibly, the serve is now a major weapon and arguably his most improved shot. And although the technical changes he tried a couple of years ago ultimately didn’t work out and he eventually returned to his original service motion, he is now being rewarded for his pursuit of excellence and also for his seismic shift in attitude. He has gone from being a player who didn’t want to lose, who relied upon mistakes from opponents to grind out victories, to a player who is now prepared to control his own destiny. His new mantra is obvious: to be the best you have to be able to beat the best.

“In big matches the winner is decided by small margins, a couple of points,” said Djokovic after his 2011 US Open triumph. “The last couple of years I guess it’s just clicked in my head - I’m going for it more. I’m more aggressive.”

DjokovicBut that isn’t the only enhancement he has made to his overall game, many experts believe. “The improvements in his serve - getting back to his old action - have been well documented and that has made a major difference,” former US Open semi-finalist Darren Cahill tells DEUCE.

“Most of his other improvement has centered around that fact that physically he now knows that he can go the distance against anyone. He used to struggle with his breathing, the heat, and with the belief he could stay in long points without it hurting his chances of winning. Now that he’s overcome those issues his shot selection is more controlled. He’s not looking to finish points too quickly from poor positions in the court, his defensive game has improved and he’s finding parts of the court that were eluding him before because he’s playing with better court position and more spin off the forehand.

“His backhand has always been world class. Probably the most important thing he’s improved, though, is his mental strength and belief against [Roger] Federer and [Rafael] Nadal.”

And he’s going to need that in spades. Nadal is aiming for a seventh crown at Roland Garros, which would eclipse Bjorn Borg’s record haul from the ‘70s and early ‘80s when he was the doyen of the dirt. The Spaniard has the best career winning percentage of any player in the Open Era on his favourite surface, winning just over 93 per cent of his matches - a statistic that rises to over 96 per cent if you only take into account the opponents he has encountered since 2005. He has only suffered one defeat at the French Open since making his debut in that very same season, when Robin Soderling got the better of him in 2009.

“For so long it seemed a near impossible task”

“The toughest opponent on clay is Nadal, there’s no question about it,” Djokovic insists. “Physically he’s the strongest player on the tour and clay demands the most physical effort from the players out of all the surfaces. Your endurance has to be on a very high level, because all the long rallies that you play on hard courts, it’s double that on clay. Mentally he has this incredible ability to stay focused from the first point to the last.”

However, Djokovic can take heart from the fact that he was able to snap Nadal’s 37-match clay court winning streak in Madrid last spring, and then backed that up by beating him again the following week in Rome, a feat that had hitherto been regarded as virtually impossible. Adding to the intrigue of a possible dream final showdown between Djokovic and Nadal at Roland Garros are the Spaniard's two victories over Djokovic in ATP World Tour Masters 1000 finals this clay-court season in Monte-Carlo and Rome, the first of which snapped Djokovic's seven-match winning streak against Rafa.

And Djokovic will surely appreciate that Roland Garros has previously been the battleground for similar highly significant exploits.

“When I won the Grand Slam it changed my career and my life,” Andre Agassi said in 2009, looking back on that famous final against Andrei Medvedev. “It was the most profound moment, having to overcome all of the self-doubt and all of the obstacles it takes to win [in Paris]. It’s something that I’m so proud of because every surface, and all the different conditions, demand so much of you mentally and physically. To win on all four surfaces in your career is one of the greatest achievements in sport.”

DjokovicAnd Cahill, who coached Agassi, concurs. “Andre was the first player in quite some time to achieve that feat so it certainly was a special moment. Considering that was the event that looked like being his first major win, and to then suffer the disappointment of losing it again and again, meant he’d been through everything emotionally before finally winning.

“It also was a point of separation from his peers through the generations that he’d competed against. His journey through life and sport has always been fascinating but he would tell you that the moment [Andrei] Medvedev missed that final forehand was the most special moment of his career. The sense of relief after all the years of trying, getting so close, and then finally succeeding was every emotion wrapped up into one glorious day.”

A career Grand Slam is undoubtedly an accomplishment worthy of greatness, but nobody since the legendary Rod Laver in 1969 has been able to hold all four titles at the same time, so Djokovic has an opportunity to elevate himself to an even higher plane than his illustrious peers and in doing so create a legacy that will live on forever. And if he is successful, the fact that he’s been able to do it while competing against some of the greatest competitors ever to assemble at the same time speaks volumes.

“You have to be a complete player to win all four majors,” explains Cahill. “It says a lot about our current generation that Federer and Nadal have done it, and now possibly Djokovic will do it too. For so long it seemed a near impossible task and then in the space of a few years these three players have taken the game to a whole new level. They have no weaknesses, they can win on any surface, they thrive on new challenges and they are making the next generation of player better by the standard they are setting.”

“I’ve been dreaming of that moment and I still have a lot to prove to myself”

So history beckons for Serbia’s favourite son, but his legion of fans will be well aware that other truly outstanding players have also had the opportunity to seize the moment and achieve true greatness only to then fail when destiny came calling.

Federer and Nadal have both held three major titles at the same time, but they were both unable to win their fourth in succession. Nadal was beaten at the Australian Open in 2011 by David Ferrer, and Federer was twice denied by losses to Nadal in the 2006 and 2007 Roland Garros finals. Pete Sampras also held three majors going into the French Open in 1994, only to be beaten in the quarter-finals by Jim Courier.

But Nole remains undaunted.

“Of course I want to win more majors and it would be unbelievable to complete the Grand Slam,” he says. “I’ve been dreaming of that moment and I still have a lot to prove to myself.

“Everything is possible.”

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