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Wednesday, May 30, 2012
Updated: May 31, 3:32 PM ET
The burden of the top ranking

By Greg Garber
ESPN.com

PARIS -- Blaz Kavcic, a shaggy and excitable Slovenian, is ranked No. 99 among ATP World Tour players. Still, after losing the first seven games, he found a way Wednesday to create fleeting doubt in the mind of world No. 1 Novak Djokovic.

Kavcic was serving at 4-3 on Court Suzanne Lenglen when the slumbering champion awoke. That eighth game was brutal, but Djokovic won it. This prompted (count them) seven vigorous fist pumps. He seemed to be trying to inflate himself, pump some confidence into his momentarily indifferent game.

It worked. Djokovic handled Kavcic 6-0, 6-4, 6-4 to advance to the third round here at Roland Garros.

Novak Djokovic
Nothing comes easy just because you're No. 1. Just ask Novak Djokovic and Victoria Azarenka.

His women's counterpart at No. 1 nearly crashed out in the first round. Victoria Azarenka was down a set and one point from falling into a 5-0 hole in the second against Alberta Brianti, and one of her coaches, two-time Grand Slam champion Amelie Mauresmo, later conceded that she thought Azarenka was "done."

But Azarenka did not suffer the embarrassing exit that Serena Williams would the next day. Azarenka won six straight games and, ultimately, the match. On Wednesday she, looking much more like the player of her exalted station, throttled Germany qualifier Dinah Pfizenmaier 6-1, 6-1 in a scant 55 minutes.

And so, both No. 1s are safely into the third round.

"This is tennis," Djokovic explained. "Everybody's playing. I expected him to fight. I expected him to come back. He didn't have anything to lose, and he showed his quality.

"I gave him the opportunity to come back to the match after a perfect first set, first seven games."

Afterward, Azarenka was asked whether she felt like the No. 1 player in the world.

"No," she responded, "I don't think like that, because being No. 1 is a difficult job, because everybody want to catch you, everybody want to move you from the spot. You have to work like No. 2, No. 3, No. 4 and No. 100. You still have to put in a lot of work. Nothing is going to come easy just because you're No. 1.

"I don't really like to think about numbers. I just try to do the job."

The top ranking is based on a 52-week rolling system -- a whole lot of sweat equity. Over the past eight years, only three men have reached the top: Djokovic, Roger Federer and Rafael Nadal. In that time, they have won all but one major.

In recent years, the WTA has seen a cavalcade of No. 1s; nine different players have spent time at the top over the past four years -- and three of them never managed to win Grand Slam singles title. Today, though, order has been restored in the kingdom.

Azarenka and Djokovic are the best in their respective businesses, and although neither is at his or her best on clay -- they have failed to win the French Open in 13 previous appearances here -- they remain plausible contenders for this championship. And, it is worth noting, that would place them both halfway toward a calendar-year Grand Slam.

Djokovic, a Serb who turned 25 last week, is working on a 23-match win streak in Grand Slam events and is looking for his fourth straight major title. That hasn't happened in men's tennis since Rod Laver captured a calendar-year Grand Slam in 1969.

Azarenka, too, won the Australian Open and has extended her major streak to nine matches. Coming in, it did not look good for the 22-year-old Belarusian. She began the year on a 26-0 run, but it ended in Miami at the hand(s) of Marion Bartoli. The clay-court season, relatively speaking, has been worse. Azarenka received treatment for a wrist injury while losing to Maria Sharapova in the Stuttgart final, then lost to Williams in the Madrid final. Five days before the French Open, she pulled out of her match with Dominika Cibulkova, citing a shoulder injury. That first-round debacle did nothing to encourage her supporters.

Did her resounding victory make a statement to the rest of the field?

"Actually, it never crossed my mind," Azarenka said. "I think winning from when you're down so much makes a pretty good statement already."

Djokovic, too, has made a pretty forceful statement this year in winning the two most prestigious titles, Melbourne and Miami.

He was disappointed he gave Kavcic a reason to believe in the second set; his movement, Djokovic said, was not efficient enough.

"But aside that," he said, pumping himself up again, "everything is working great. I'm feeling better and better every match."