Sunday, May 22, 2011
Updated: May 23, 11:57 AM ET
Beyond the streak for Novak Djokovic
By Greg Garber
Editor's note: Novak Djokovic finds himself on the threshold of history this year in Paris. The 24-year-old Serb comes into Roland Garros with a winning streak of 37 matches to start the 2011 season. Should he reach the final here, he would break John McEnroe's all-time mark of 42. ESPN.com's team on the ground will produce daily dispatches of Djokovic's assault on the record books: Streak Watch.
PARIS -- Thiemo Carsten Jannick de Bakker, all elbows, knees and ears, was banging from the baseline on Court 8 with world No. 4 Andy Murray. He's a goofy, gangly 6-foot-4, 148 pounds and on this sunny, breezy Sunday afternoon he seemed to be enjoying himself.
The 22-year-old Dutch player is ranked No. 71 in the world, which means he gathers his own errant tennis balls, while Murray, after waiting patiently with arms crossed, accepts them from one of his team.
De Bakker has a big serve and a forehand to match, but clay remains his favorite surface. In 2006, when he finished as the world's top junior player, he reached the semifinals of the boys' tournament here at Roland Garros. After a squalid beginning to 2011 -- he lost his first match in six of the first seven tournaments -- his game came alive in Madrid, where he won two qualifying matches and beat Juan Carlos Ferrero in the first round.
His challenge in this first round will likely prove more difficult. That would be No. 2 seed and potentially soon-to-be-No. 1 Novak Djokovic, who turned 24 on Sunday.
For the past six years, Rafael Nadal or Roger Federer has been the French Open champion.
The sublime play of Djokovic -- he is 37-0 to start the year -- leaves open the possibility that another lucky seven could break the monopoly.
"I think it's good for the sport to have another rivalry in tennis," Djokovic told a gathering of the press on Saturday. "It's not just Federer/Nadal, which obviously it has been and it is probably one of the biggest -- if not the biggest -- rivalry that we ever had in our sport."
And yet, the scintillating Serb has single-handedly blown it up. Of all the myriad numbers floating around his streak, consider these: Djokovic has won 15 of 18 sets this year (and all seven matches) against Nadal and Federer, when they were ranked No. 1 and No. 2.
"In the French Open I was never the top favorite," said Federer, who has lost all three of his matches against Djokovic this season. "It's true I didn't have as much pressure here than in other tournaments, but this year I have even less pressure because Rafa wants to keep his title; Novak wants to win it.
"This is why it is interesting to follow what's going to happen, whether Novak will overcome Rafa or not. That's why I'm following this."
Djokovic has beaten Nadal in four finals this year, but the first three didn't sound any alarms for Rafa's supporters. Indian Wells and Miami were played on hard courts, a surface more conducive to Djokovic's game. Madrid was played at a high altitude and the ball was flying -- some said faster than Miami. Rome, however, was something altogether different. In heavier conditions that aren't far from the plodding pace dictated by the crushed red brick of Roland Garros, Djokovic took down Rafa 6-4, 6-4.
After losing his first nine matches against Nadal on clay, Djokovic has now won two in a row.
"I felt that I have big chances to win the second set, no?" Nadal said. "He's with extreme confidence all the time, so the thing what he did is really difficult to repeat another time. I just congratulate him for everything."
Nevertheless, Nadal has been installed by Ladbrokes as the marginal favorite to win here. He's listed at 4-to-5, just ahead of Djokovic (13-8) and well ahead of Federer (14-1) and Murray (14-1).
De Bakker, who reached the third round here a year ago, is a good test for Djokovic, who has practiced lightly since winning in Madrid and Rome. There were a few framed forehands Sunday when he was practicing with Murray, a matter of drifting concentration.
The Dutchman could be forgiven for looking ahead; that light he sees is a train in a tunnel coming right at him.
Greg Garber is a senior writer for ESPN.com.