Commentary

Novak Djokovic embracing challenge

Updated: May 28, 2012, 2:40 AM ET
By Kamakshi Tandon | ESPN.com

What to watch on Day 2: World No. 1 Victoria Azarenka kicks off action at the French Open, with Novak Djokovic beginning his campaign for the "Novak Slam" later Monday. Comeback sensation Brian Baker will try to continue his amazing return from five surgeries on Court 6, while American hope Ryan Harrison faces a tough task against skillful Frenchman Gilles Simon. Veterans Lleyton Hewitt and Tommy Haas, also on the road back from surgeries, are among the others in action.


PARIS -- There's a lot of history on the line at this year's tournament. Rafael Nadal is looking to break Bjorn Borg's record for most French Open titles by winning his seventh crown here, and Novak Djokovic is trying to become the first man to win all four majors in a row since Rod Laver completed his 1969 Grand Slam.

Nadal, who has become accustomed to chasing records at this time of year, is treating this event like all the others before it. "Last year, if I won I will equal Borg," said the six-time champion, who has only lost on these courts once before. "Any year we can find a different excuse. This tournament is important enough for itself, not because now I have six. I have much more than I ever dreamed. The motivation is always the same."

Djokovic, however, knows he has a chance, which might not come again. "This is an opportunity that very few tennis players have," Djokovic said. "I'm aware of that, but I accept it as a challenge. It makes me even more motivated, if I can say -- in a positive way it makes me feel good about it, rather than feeling pressured and worried."

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Gabriel Bouys/AFP/Getty ImagesNovak Djokovic knows he has a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity at the French Open.

Like Nadal, the Serb is no stranger to coming into the French Open with a lot of hype and expectations. Last year, he was in the midst of a 43-match winning streak that was stopped by Roger Federer in the semifinals. Later, he admitted feeling the weight of the streak during the tournament. He's trying not to get too caught up in the history and the numbers this time around.

"I haven't thought about it too much because I do not want to put too much pressure on myself, you know, not necessary pressure that I don't need at this moment, because I already have enough," he said. "I try to approach this tournament this year as any other year and try to prepare myself equally well."

He wasn't exactly sure how many times a sweep of all four majors had been done in the past. The answer is three: once by Don Budge in 1938, and twice, in 1962 and 1969, by Laver. Each was also a calendar Slam, with all four majors won in the same year. Djokovic's sweep would stretch over two seasons and make him the first male player to win a non-calendar Slam, which has typically been referred to by the player's name ever since Tiger Woods' consecutive victories in golf's four majors was dubbed the "Tiger Slam."

Djokovic is the current holder of Wimbledon and the U.S. and Australian Opens, and will be trying to complete the set over the next two weeks by winning his first French Open (seven players have won all four). Pete Sampras, Roger Federer and Nadal have all tried unsuccessfully to complete the fourth leg of the non-calendar Slam in the past, but Serena Williams did manage to win the "Serena Slam" on the women's side between 2002 and 2003.

"If Novak does it, then he can join my club and we can be best friends," Williams recently joked.

It's easier for Djokovic to embrace the prospect of a "Novak Slam" rather than see it as a burden following his recent successes. "I had the best year and half of my career. I believe I'm in the peak of my career at this moment," he said. "I definitely want to use this confidence that I have and try to make a good result here in Roland Garros."

Although Djokovic has had an excellent season so far, winning the Australian Open and the Sony Open in Miami, he hasn't been invincible, like he was last year. John Isner defeated him in Indian Wells, while Nadal has won both of their past two meetings in the finals of the Monte Carlo and Rome Masters. Previously, Djokovic had won his past seven matches against Nadal, including two clay finals last year.

Nadal's recent return to ascendancy, combined with his career record on clay, is why both Djokovic and Federer point to the Spaniard as the French Open favorite even though he is No. 2 in the rankings. "[He's] always the No. 1 favorite because he's just what he is on clay courts, you know," Djokovic said. "Here he's going to be even more difficult to beat because it's the best-of-five [sets format]."

A relatively easy draw in the early rounds won't hurt Djokovic. He begins against Italian Potito Starace, who is unlikely to trouble Djokovic for even a whole set, and Fernando Verdasco is the highest seed he could meet in the fourth round. Jo-Wilfried Tsonga, Gilles Simon and Stanislas Wawrinka are potential quarterfinal opponents, all tough but winnable matches.

After that, it could be a semifinal rematch against Federer, who will be watching Djokovic's chase for four in a row closely. "I think it's great for the sport," said Federer, who has twice been in a similar position to Djokovic -- winning three majors in a row and then reaching the French Open final before losing to Nadal. "It will be interesting to follow Novak going for that. But the hard part is, every point you play, every game you play, the pressure you face, and just answering the questions time and time again.

"It's fun because you're talking about the highest of accomplishments. But at the end of the day, you just like to play the matches and not talk about it that much."

Not much chance of that for Djokovic the next two weeks.


Lleyton Hewitt could be a potential second-round opponent for Djokovic. Hewitt was a surprise wild card into this event after not playing since a Davis Cup tie early in the year because of ongoing foot trouble. The Australian reported that the former world No. 1 has undergone "radical surgery to prolong his career and remove the constant pain that has accompanied his every court appearance over the past two years, with two screws and a metal plate now locking permanently into place in the big toe on his left foot."

Despite playing with the injury at the Australian Open, Hewitt took Djokovic to four sets in their fourth-round meeting.


Victoria Azarenka, who became No. 1 by winning the Australian Open, will began a Grand Slam as the No. 1 seed for the first time at this French Open. Her relatively short time at the top means she's still not as well known to the crowds as other tournament favorites such as Williams or Maria Sharapova, but might get some extra crowd support thanks to the presence of beloved Frenchwoman Amelie Mauresmo in her coaching box.

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Dan Istitene/Getty ImagesVictoria Azarenka dominated for most of the year but, lately, has shown signs of vulnerability.

Azarenka and coach Sam Sumyk brought on board the two-time Grand Slam champion Mauresmo as an adviser earlier this year.

"I don't think I need the major change in my game or something," Azarenka said. "It's just a little bit about the details.

"She has a lot of experience to share, you know, not only on court but off court -- how to manage a little bit, pace yourself and stuff. Plus she can give me advice how to handle yourself during matches because she's been on the big stages -- as I have been already too, but you know, it's good to see somebody else's opinion sometimes."

Azarenka begins against Italian Alberta Brianti on Monday. But with Williams, Sharapova and defending champion Li Na all in the other half of the draw, Azarenka finds herself nicely positioned for a good run.

There's one thing Mauresmo can't provide Azarenka, though: the secret to winning the French Open. Though Mauresmo raised her compatriots' hopes many times, she was frequently struck with nerves at her home Grand Slam and never got past the quarterfinals.


With both Nadal and Djokovic chasing history here, Federer has not been receiving as much attention. It was much the same last year, when he defied expectations and reached the final, beating Djokovic along the way. He agrees that the focus should be on the two, but doesn't want to be counted out this year, either.

Repeating last year's run won't be easy, because Federer is in perhaps the trickiest quarter of the draw, with Tomas Berdych or Juan Martin del Potro as potential quarterfinal opponents, and perhaps David Nalbandian in the second round.

His breakdown of the favorites? "I think Rafael, playing for his seventh title, is the favorite," said Federer in French. "No discussion. We're crazy to even talk about this. Some people might say he's not the favorite, but to me he's the favorite. I played him so many times here. I know how incredible he can be here in Roland Garros.

"As for Novak with all his results lately, he's one of the big favorites. Likewise for me, with everything I accomplished. But for me, it would be Rafa, Novak, and me third position.

"But at the end of the day, I don't think it's going to change a lot once the tournament is started and when we play each other."

Let the battle commence.