Novak Djokovic must feel as though he has never been away. It was cold and wet at Roland Garros yesterday, just as it was 50 weeks ago when the Serb was fighting his way back into contention against Rafael Nadal in the French Open final as he sought to become only the third man in history to hold all four Grand Slam singles titles at the same time.
The memory is not one to be treasured. Having lost the first two sets, Djokovic took advantage of the increasingly heavy conditions to clinch the third and go a break up in the fourth, winning eight games in a row, only for the worsening weather to force the players off the court. Play was eventually called off for the night and when it resumed the following day Nadal broke back immediately and won the match in four sets.
As Djokovic, the world No 1, prepares for his next assault on history – the French Open is the one Grand Slam title missing from his CV and the tournament, which begins tomorrow, is his major target for 2013 – he admits that it will be impossible to forget last year’s final. In particular, he wonders what might have happened if tournament organisers had delayed calling off play that Sunday night. Not long after the decision was taken, the skies cleared and the sun shone.
“I remember telling a supervisor I wanted to play,” Djokovic recalled. “I really wanted to play on. Who wouldn’t have wanted to? I had won eight games in a row. I was in the fourth set, up by a break, and I wanted to play. I felt great. I think it was close to 8pm, 7.45 or whatever. I think sunset was about 9.15. It was still light, you could still play. So I think in that hour’s space I could have done some more good things on the court.”
Did Djokovic think he would have won if play had resumed that night? “Even though I have to admit that those were also the thoughts that were going through my mind after the final, I tried not to give too much value to them,” he said. “It is what it is. The circumstances, the situation went that way. Maybe I could have won if we had continued that day. But it wasn’t to be. Maybe this year it’s going to be. I still keep believing it is the year for Roland Garros.”
As he sits back in a chair in the players’ lounge, Djokovic exudes self-confidence. Never one to lack belief in himself, he has plenty of reasons for confidence over the next fortnight, despite the remarkable run of results which has made Nadal the odds-on favourite to win the title for the eighth time, and the hugely challenging draw he was given yesterday.
Djokovic’s first opponent is David Goffin, the fresh-faced Belgian who made such a big impression in Paris last year. In the third round, he could meet Grigor Dimitrov, the exciting young Bulgarian who beat him in Madrid earlier this month.
Most dauntingly of all, Djokovic has pulled the ultimate short straw with his potential semi-final opponent – Nadal, the king of clay himself. Djokovic gave an indication of what he thought about the draw when he said before his pre-tournament press conference yesterday that Goffin was the only future opponent he would answer questions about.
Nevertheless, the Serb has a fine record here – apart from last year’s final he has also reached three semi-finals and two quarter-finals – and has beaten Nadal in three clay-court finals in just over two years, including last month at the Monte Carlo Masters, where he denied the Spaniard a ninth consecutive title.
The thought of making history here is clearly a major motivation for Djokovic, who would become only the eighth man ever to win all four Grand Slam singles titles. The others are Don Budge, Fred Perry, Rod Laver, Roy Emerson, Andre Agassi, Roger Federer and Nadal. “Not many tennis players have the privilege to have their names in the history books,” Djokovic said. “Knowing that I’ve already done something that makes me part of history makes me feel incredibly proud, but I feel there is still a long way to go. I’m 26. I feel that I’m at the peak of my career, but I still have many years in front of me.
“Hopefully I’m going to do some new things that can make history, but I’m going to try to take it slowly. Thinking too much ahead or too much in the past can really disturb the present moment. That’s something I’ve learned over the years.”
Although Djokovic insists he would take defeat here in his stride – “If I don’t make it this time it’s not the end of the world,” he said – he would hope to recover more quickly than he did last summer, when he went on to lose in the semi-finals at both Wimbledon and the Olympics, where he even missed out on a bronze medal.
“That Roland Garros loss [last year] maybe mentally influenced me for Wimbledon in some way,” he admitted. “But look, I try to have that reset, that positive thinking and I try to recharge the batteries for every tournament. Sometimes, the tournaments are very close. Especially Roland Garros and Wimbledon, they are more or less back-to-back Grand Slams. They’re not just physically demanding, but also mentally and emotionally.
“It’s not always possible to expect that you are going to be ready in a few days and just say: ‘OK, I’m going to play my best tennis, I’m going to forget what happened.’ I don’t tell myself to forget things. I believe that every experience is valuable, especially in the finals of Grand Slams and so forth. You try to learn from them, take the best out of it, and then move on.”
Never one to leave anything to chance, Djokovic has added French to Serbo-Croat, English, Italian and German in his impressive list of languages as he prepares for the next fortnight. “If I want to do well at Roland Garros I have to learn French,” he said with a smile. “That’s what I feel. That’s something that’s missing.”
Having known what it can be like to have the public against you – earlier this month he had to deal with a hostile crowd in Madrid when he faced Dimitrov – Djokovic knows that speaking the home language is one of the best ways of winning over the Parisian spectators.
“You always need the crowd,” he said. “You always want to have the crowd on your side. That’s no secret. It’s a big difference when you have support from the stands. It carries you on, gives you confidence and makes you feel more comfortable on the court. Nobody likes having the crowd against you, trust me.
“I didn’t expect that in Madrid and it caught me a little bit unprepared, but it is what it is. I am absolutely aware of the fact that when you’re playing your matches, sometimes you have the crowd on your side, sometimes you don’t, depending on where you are at, where you play, where people like you more or less. It’s sport. People get passionate for the player they support and you have to deal with it.”
Whatever happens on the court at Roland Garros, Djokovic will keep faith in his ability to dictate his own destiny. “I believe that there is no greater power than your mind and the way you think,” he said. “It’s very important for people to accept their own life and to deal with it. If you are sending bad frequencies and bad vibrations with your negative thoughts, you attract all these negative circumstances and situations to you. It’s the same with the positive side. That’s what I believe in. I believe in the power of mind. That can always prevail.”
French Open 2013: Best of the draw
N Djokovic (seed 1) v D Goffin
Qualifier v R Federer (2)
R Nadal (3) v D Brands
M Matosevic v D Ferrer (4)
T Berdych (5) v G Monfils
J-W Tsonga (6) v A Bedene
S Stakhovsky v R Gasquet (7)
N Mahut v J Tipsarevic (8)
S Williams (1) v A Tatishvili
S-W Hsieh v M Sharapova (2)
E Vesnina v V Azarenka (3)
A Radwanska (4) v S Peer
A Rus v S Errani (5)
L Na (6) v A Medina-Garrigues
P Kvitova (7) v A Rezai
S Voegele v H Watson
M Erakovic v E Baltacha
C Wozniacki (10) v L Robson