Commentary

One tall order for Novak Djokovic

Updated: May 25, 2012, 2:31 PM ET
By Greg Garber | ESPN.com

Novak Djokovic, spinning tightly and elegantly through the air, tracing a parabolic trajectory, is poised to land the rare (and elusive) Quad.

He has won three consecutive Grand Slam singles titles -- last year's Wimbledon and U.S. Open and this season's Australian Open. If he somehow manages to land cleanly and win the French Open, which begins Sunday, Djokovic will find himself in even more rarified air.

This is only the fifth time in more than four decades that a man has won three straight majors. The previous four times it happened, three of history's greatest players failed to win a fourth.

Pete Sampras reached the quarterfinals of Roland Garros in both 1993 and 1994 before losing to Sergi Bruguera and Jim Courier, respectively. Similarly, Roger Federer won three straight twice -- over 2005-06 and 2006-07 -- only to fall to Rafael Nadal in the French final. Rafa hit the trifecta in 2010 but couldn't overcome David Ferrer or his scarred knees in the quarterfinals of the 2011 Australian Open.

"After all the history that Rafa and Roger have made, that Djokovic could be the one to win four straight, well, it legitimately blows my mind," said three-time major champion Lindsay Davenport, a Tennis Channel analyst who will be in Paris. "And he's doing it against arguably the greatest player of all time [Federer], and then Rafa comes along. It's so off the charts."

[+] EnlargeNovak Djokovic
Greg Wood/AFP/Getty ImagesNovak Djokovic, on the precipice of defeat in last year's Australian Open final, found a way to fight back and beat Rafael Nadal.

In 1988, Steffi Graf won all four majors plus the Olympic gold medal, the Golden Slam. Serena Williams won four straight majors over the 2002 and '03 seasons. Margaret Smith Court (1970) and Maureen Connelly (1953) achieved the calendar-year Grand Slam.

But women play best-of-three-set matches; the men play best-of-five, a substantially sturdier task. To hold all four titles simultaneously, Djokovic will have to win 28 consecutive matches -- on four distinctly different surfaces on three different continents. One man against the field of men's professional tennis.

And, if the past three major finals are any indication, he will have to beat Nadal on the red clay, where the Spaniard has fashioned an unassailable 45-1 record -- the best mark by any player of the Open era at any Slam event. And Djokovic will be dogged by recent history; after beating Rafa seven straight times, he has lost his past two matches to Nadal on clay, in the finals at Monte Carlo and this week in Rome.

The only living man to win four straight majors is Rod Laver. The dashing Australian completed a calendar-year Grand Slam as an amateur exactly a half-century ago. He did it a second time, as a professional, seven years later in 1969. The late, great J. Donald Budge achieved the Grand Slam in 1938.

"The competition is pretty darn tough," Laver said recently from his home in Carlsbad, Calif. "You've just got to be very fortunate. No injuries. No sickness. You've got to get yourself fired up to play your best tennis for long stretches of time. Yeah, I'm a little surprised nobody's done it."

Can Djokovic do it?

"I think he can," Laver said, pausing to think. "I don't know if he will."

Finding a comfort level

Four of Djokovic's five major titles have come on hard courts, upon which he moves better than any other player. On clay, only Nadal and, perhaps, Federer move with more agility and efficiency.

The irony? Djokovic grew up on red clay in Serbia; until recently, it was the only surface available. He has many of the qualities that play well on clay -- extraordinary defensive skills and athleticism. The only piece missing until last year was stamina and strength -- and the confidence that comes with them.

Last spring, Djokovic beat Nadal in the clay finals at Madrid and Rome.

[+] EnlargeRod Laver
Douglas Miller/Getty ImagesTo date, Rod Laver is the only man to hold all four majors at once in the Open era.

"Rome, in particular, was an incredible achievement," said ESPN analyst Darren Cahill, who coached 1999 French Open champion Andre Agassi. "He went three-plus-hours in the semifinals against Murray and came right back against Rafa. That said a lot about his belief -- and his conditioning. The question you have to ask is can he do it over five sets? Very few people have accomplished it against Rafa in Paris."

Djokovic never had the chance to test Rafa in Paris; Federer beat him in the semifinals to end a 43-match winning streak. The Swiss champion lost to Nadal in the final, but if he hadn't taken down Djokovic, we might be talking about the possibility of five straight majors.

This year, the pendulum has swung back toward Nadal. They met in the Monte Carlo final, but Nadal's surprisingly easy win followed the passing of Dojkovic's grandfather early in the tournament. In Rome, there were no such mitigating factors. Nadal broke Djokovic's serve at 5-all in the first set -- and Djokovic countered by breaking his racket on the net post. Nadal closed the set by winning 13 of 18 points, then broke Djokovic again to open the second set. Rafa has won all four of his sets against Djokovic this year on clay.

Laver, a 5-foot-8 lefty who grew up playing on grass in Australia, struggled in his early clay encounters. In 1956, he lost his first match ever at Roland Garros.

"The Europeans, it seemed like they knew where you were hitting even before you hit it," Laver remembered. "I said, 'I want to improve on this stuff. So every year I'll go over and enter all the tournaments I can and learn everything I can learn about clay.'

"It was just too risky going for a full-blooded forehand, and if you don't win it, he chips it back and you start all over again. If you miss, he wins the point. It sort of lulls you to sleep. So you go for more topspin and drop shots. Patience is probably the most important part of it. The French guys had it. Eventually, when I found the right shot, I'd give it a good whack."

In 1958, Laver won his first match at Roland Garros but lost the second. The next two years, he advanced to the third round. In 1961, he reached the semifinals. In the second round the following year, Laver fell behind fellow Aussie Dick Crealy two sets to love but escaped. He beat countrymen Neale Fraser and Roy Emerson in the semifinal and final, respectively.

Laver acknowledges that the degree of difficulty today in winning four straight majors is greater than back in his day.

"Look at the depth, the talent and the surfaces," he said. "In the '60s, they were playing three of the majors on grass and one on clay. It wasn't as tough for me."

Cahill, an Australian, reveres Laver and his accomplishments.

"If Rod says that, then it's true," Cahill said, laughing. "Today's players have taken the game to levels we haven't seen before. When you have the likes of Novak, Rafa, Roger and Murray -- to win a major is very, very difficult for those guys. Not to mention all the other guys.

"Djokovic may have to go through the two best clay-courters of his generation -- and with [Bjorn] Borg -- two of the greatest ever. That's a tall order."

Shots in the dark?

Every Grand Slam victory is the sum of its many subtle parts:

A series of urgent-yet-intricate steps to reach a seemingly unreachable ball. A framed shot that falls in. A well-disguised, forceful forehand that catches an opponent leaning the wrong way. A service return in which luck was a greater factor than talent. A strategic plan that pays off on the 20th stroke of a rally. If each point is the product of a handful of strokes and each five-set match produces an average of, say, 200 points, that's a potential 1,000 shots.

And sometimes, it comes down to just one.

Djokovic's romp at the All England Club in 2011 didn't hold much drama. Jo-Wilfried Tsonga pushed him to two tiebreakers in a 3-hour, 7-minute semifinal, but Djokovic was never in danger. He dropped the third set to Nadal in the final, 6-1, but was hardly challenged in winning his first Wimbledon title.

At the U.S. Open and the recent Australian Open, it can be argued, Djokovic's victories each turned on a single stroke.

Federer, famously, had two match points on the lean and hungry Serb in the semifinals in New York when an extraordinary thing happened. Federer sent a 108 mph serve out wide, and Djokovic lashed an insane crosscourt forehand return that caught a piece of the line.

"I can't explain to you because I don't know how it happened," Djokovic said later. "I had to hit it hard, and it got in, luckily for me."

Federer, who seemed to suggest it was a lucky shot, sounded like a parent talking about a child.

"I never played that way," he said. "I believe in the hard-work's-going-to-pay-off kind of thing. For me, this is very hard to understand how you can play a shot like that on match point."

Ten minutes later, Djokovic, who had trailed by two sets, won the match. He then beat Rafa in a hard-hitting final. They met again four months later for the Australian Open title.

In the fifth set, Nadal was in position to lock down the match. It was 30-15, and if he had executed a relatively simple backhand into the open court, he would have been a point from a 5-2 lead. Djokovic, who had stopped playing, watched in amazement as the ball drifted just wide. The Serb came back to win the longest Grand Slam final ever -- 5 hours, 53 minutes -- for his third consecutive major.

"It's true I had a big mistake with 30-15," Nadal said afterward. "But it's not a moment to think about that. That's another just moment in an almost six-hour match."

Justin Gimelstob, the former pro and current Tennis Channel analyst, laughed when the subject of Djokovic's quest came up.

"You're asking the wrong guy," he said. "Ask me if I could win four matches in one major. I can't really extrapolate -- all I can say is Djokovic, like Sampras and Federer, has taken the game to another level.

"I think he views this as just another challenge. It will be most interesting if he plays Rafa in the final. Clay is an uneven surface, and it's a lot tougher to take the ball early. The challenge will be in how he manages his energy reserves. Physically, how will he hold up?"

U.S. Fed Cup captain Mary Jo Fernandez was a singles finalist at Roland Garros in 1993 and a doubles champion (with Lindsay Davenport) three years later. She'll be working as an analyst for ESPN in Paris.

"For Novak to keep this up will be quite an achievement," Fernandez said. "The way he defends -- I watched him up close in Miami -- his court coverage is just impeccable. Now he's got a feel at the net.

"He's really become the absolute complete player."

Eye on the prize

This year, the Australian Open in Melbourne celebrated its 73-year-old favorite son. Laver, feted on the 50th anniversary of his first Grand Slam, took in matches at the arena that bears his noble name.

"The tournament was in Brisbane when I played it," Laver said, "but, yeah, it was a thrill to get back there and see some of the competitors I played against and have a reunion of sorts.

"You don't think about it for a long time. And then, all of a sudden, you think about it a lot. Time creeps up on you."

[+] EnlargeNovak Djokovic
Patrick Kovarik/AFP/Getty ImagesLast year, Roger Federer, famously, snapped Novak Djokovic's 43-match win streak in the French Open semifinals.

In recent months, Laver said, he has found himself thinking about his achievements -- and the forces that have conspired to keep his Grand Slams unequaled.

When Boris Becker flashed onto the scene in the mid-'80s, Laver thought he had the game to do it. Becker was athletic and liked the ball high but could never get past the semifinals (1987, 1989, 1991) at Roland Garros. Sampras was "pretty dang close" in Paris, but he kept going for too many deep shots against Yevgeny Kafelnikov in the 1996 semifinal.

"And it would have been Federer," Laver said, "had there not been a Nadal. He's the best clay-court player in the world, and he just came in at a time that robbed Federer, if you will, of winning a Grand Slam. Nadal had his chance, but the one now is Djokovic.

"He likes to play on clay; he showed that last year against Rafa. What did he win? Six, seven tournaments in a row? He's got a good chance to pull it off."

In other words, it is a reasonable possibility. This seems to be the cautiously optimistic consensus.

Brad Gilbert, who coached Andre Agassi, Andy Roddick and Murray believes Nadal's win over Djokovic in Monte Carlo was important.

"A win like that will give him some confidence going into Paris," said Gilbert, an ESPN analyst. "You can make an argument that Novak will be the favorite going in. The key, I think, will be how healthy they'll both be."

Davenport believes the weight of extending the 43-0 streak last year left Djokovic drained when he lost to Federer in the Roland Garros semifinals.

"Paris has been the goal for the last couple of months," Davenport said. "He has his eye on that prize. Last year, he devoted so much external and emotional injury in keeping that streak going. Novak is fresher this year."

So, will Djokovic win at Roland Garros?

"Yes," she said. "That's going out on a limb. Novak seems like he's got Rafa's number. He's got a lot of fire."

Gimelstob's caveat is Rafa's physical condition.

"I think [Nadal] will win," Gimelstob said. "If he's healthy."

Laver, for the purposes of this story, is the final authority.

"Can Novak win?" he asked himself aloud. "You've got to get inside someone's head. Then, if he wins, he's going for a Calendar Slam. Is Wimbledon going to get him a little tight? What about the Olympics and the U.S. Open?

"Novak has got every shot in the book. It's uncanny how he's so consistent and hits the ball so hard and gets good depth on every shot and the stamina that goes with it. I think he's got every chance."

Greg Garber

Writer, Reporter
Greg Garber joined ESPN in 1991 and provides reports for NFL Countdown and SportsCenter. He is also a regular contributor to Outside the Lines and a senior writer for ESPN.com.