By Richard Pagliaro
Novak Djokovic is ready to rock Paris, but believes the song remains when it comes to Roland Garros’ ruler.
After Rafael Nadal dethroned defending champion Djokovic 7-5, 1-6, 6-3 to capture his record-extending 10th Rome championship and 88th career title, the world No. 1 said if he can sustain this level of play in Paris he can return to the French Open final.
Djokovic is pleased with his play and competitiveness on clay, but concedes it’s “a long shot” to dethrone 13-time Roland Garros champion Nadal months after the Spaniard swept the 33-year-old Serbian 6-0, 6-2, 7-5 in the 2020 French Open final.
“I think if I manage to play the way I played last night and today, I think I have a good chance to go all the way in Paris,” Djokovic said after the final. “Of course it’s a long shot, but I’m gonna play a tournament in Belgrade the week before French Open, so that’s going to give me another set of matches. Don’t know how many but hopefully can have a few coming into Paris ready to rock ‘n roll.”
The 18-time Grand Slam champion should draw confidence from the fact he was coming off a near five-hour day of play on Saturday when he rallied past Stefanos Tsitsipas winning the final three games of their quarterfinal then subdued Italian Lorenzo Sonego in a two hour, 44-minute semifinal yet still nearly out-dueled the king of clay in Sunday’s final.
Consider Djokovic went up an early break in both the first and second sets and had a pair of break points for a 3-2 lead in the decider of the Rome final. The Australian Open champion showed tactical acumen attacking Nadal’s court positioning—Djokovic serve-and-volleyed effectively on some key points, dislodged the second seed from the baseline with drop shots and even tossed in some high looping moon balls a few times—and can you can make a case Djokovic was testing out possible blue-print points to apply in a potential Paris rematch.
The 34-year-old Nadal equaled Djokovic’s all-time Masters mark capturing his 36th Masters 1000 title in Rome.
Next month, Djokovic can move one step closer to 20-time Grand Slam champions Nadal and Roger Federer by winning the French Open for his 19th major championship and set up a Wimbledon defense that could see him equal the major mark.
The flip side: defeating Nadal at Roland Garros is as easy as swiping the smile straight off Mona Lisa’s face.
Demolishing Djokovic in the 2020 French Open final, a dynamic Nadal raised his Roland Garros record to 100-2, including a perfect 26-0 in semifinals and finals, with an astounding 81 of those 100 wins coming in straight sets.
Then there’s the fact Court Philippe Chatrier gives Nadal much more running room than Rome’s tighter Center Court and Nadal, who was knocked down twice tripping over the tacked-down lines in Rome, clearly has a comfort level at Roland Garros and the best-of-five-set format plays to his strength as he’s nearly invincible in five-setters on dirt owning an astounding 125-2 record in best-of-five-set clay-court matches.
Still, Djokovic draws plenty of positives from his performance ahead of Paris.
“I was happy to play him because of the fine-tuning for Roland Garros,” Djokovic said. “That doesn’t get bigger of a challenge on clay than playing Rafa in finals.
“I could have easily went out from this tournament in quarters. I’m very pleased with my fighting spirit. The level of tennis was higher and higher, actually.”
Photo credit: Internazionali BNL d’Italia