Djokovic hungry for French title

PARIS -- For years, the French Open has been the particular province of a muscular fellow from the Spanish island of Mallorca.

But when the balls started flying at Roland Garros six days ago, Rafael Nadal was not the oddsmakers' choice to win. Novak Djokovic, who has never won the title here, was. Before the tournament, though, the No. 2-seeded Djokovic was asked if the No. 1 Nadal was the favorite.

"Yes," the 27-year-old Serb replied, drawing a chorus of laughter from reporters. "Yes. After eight times that he has won here, I think he deserves that role."

The role, perhaps, but -- at least in Djokovic's mind -- not the title, not this year. Djokovic has been coolly navigating his way through the draw here; he dropped only seven games in each of his first two matches. Friday, he actually lost a set but settled down to defeat No. 25 seed Marin Cilic 6-3, 6-2, 6-7 (2), 6-4 to advance to the fourth round.

Cilic, who has substantially improved his ranking under coach Goran Ivanisevic, had been tied with Roger Federer for the ATP World Tour leads with 30 match wins in 2014. The problem is, he just can't beat Djokovic. He's only won three sets of the 24 they've played and is 0-9.

"Physically I had to work very hard, because he was very aggressive, and I could expect that," Djokovic said. "I came into the match knowing that he's going to take his chances. So it wasn't easy, because, you know, once you start being passive, you know, you lose kind of the confidence to step in.

"In important moments I held my nerves, and I'm very happy that I went through."

How consistent has Djokovic been? He hasn't lost to a player ranked outside the top 20 in a Grand Slam in four years.

In the "Game of Thrones" saga that is their head-to-head history, Djokovic continues to hold the upper hand over Nadal. They have met 41 times and the pendulum has swung sharply in both directions; Nadal won five straight matches from 2008-09 and Djokovic had a 7-0 run in 2011-12.

After Nadal won the US Open last fall, beating Djokovic decisively in a four-set final, Djokovic has come back with a vengeance, winning four straight matches and eight of nine sets. In the Miami final and two weeks ago in the Rome final, Djokovic was dominant. But in the mind's eye, it's hard to dismiss the images of the past two years when Djokovic lost to Nadal here in the final and, in 2013, in a rousing semifinal that was decided 9-7 in the fifth set.

Although Rafa has been strangely tentative through this year's clay court swing, he has compiled a 61-1 record at Roland Garros. That must be respected, at least until they meet in the final.

Unlike some players, Djokovic has a social awareness beyond the court. He serves as an ambassador for UNICEF in Serbia to defend children's rights and his foundation received the Arthur Ashe Humanitarian of the Year in 2012. At this French Open, he has helped bring attention to the victims of flooding in his native country of Serbia.

Djokovic said he was encouraged how the people of Serbia, Croatia and Bosnia have come together in crisis.

"They showed the solidarity and support to each other like it hasn't been for 20 years, since the last conflict and the war that we had that didn't bring any good to any of the people," Djokovic said a few days ago. "Maybe Yugoslavia cannot be the same or cannot be as an official country again like it was three decades ago, but at least we can use the situation and show the support in the future and respect to each other."

He has a lighter side, too. During a rain delay in his first-round match, Djokovic struck up a conversation with the ball boy holding an umbrella over his changeover chair. Soon, the tennis player was holding the umbrella and serving the kid a Perrier. Djokovic said he didn't get any tips from the tennis-playing lad, but would ask the next time they met. The clip was popular on highlight reels and YouTube.

The broader agenda, what he calls his chief priority for 2014, is collecting a first French Open title. That would give Djokovic a matched set, the career Grand Slam. That's something only seven other men have achieved. The magnitude of the list -- Andre Agassi, Don Budge, Roy Emerson, Roger Federer, Rod Laver, Rafael Nadal and Fred Perry -- suggests Djokovic would be entering a new dimension of his career.

Thursday, after losing in straight sets to Nadal, 20-year-old Austrian Dominic Thiem said that Djokovic was the only player with the skill to press the baseline against Nadal.

"I'm flattered to hear that," Djokovic said. "Definitely this is the tournament that he likes the most. He lost once in his life on this tournament, on this court. We all know that, and we all know how good he is. But in the end of the day, you don't go out with a white flag on the court. You try to win whoever is across the net."