For the fifth year in a row, the biggest storyline entering the French Open is the same: is this the year that Novak Djokovic completes his career grand slam by winning the French Open. He’s had his chances over the last four years, reaching three finals and a semifinal, but has fallen short every time. Last year, he even beat Rafael Nadal in the quarterfinals, ending the King of Clay’s five-year run, but he still fell short in the final against Stan Wawrinka.
As usual, Djokovic will enter the tournament as one of the favourites and is expected by many to finally get over the hump and claim the French Open crown to complete his career grand slam. But what if he doesn’t? What if he finds a way to lose the way he has at the last four editions of the tournaments? While this is certainly not his last chance to win the French Open, if he does not win this time around, there are lots of reasons to start to doubt that he will ever win the biggest title that still eludes him.
Why this is the year
There are lots of reasons why Novak Djokovic should be the favourite to win and why he has a great chance to win the title this year. First of all, he is at the height of his powers at the moment. He won the Australian Open this year and added three Masters 1000 titles. Most of the tour still lives in fear of the world number one. Any time he loses, even if it’s to high-level opponents, it’s considered a major upset. No matter how he plays, he goes into every match the favourite and has a mental advantage over his opponents. He’s healthy, he’s somewhat young, and he’s capable of a higher level of tennis than anyone on the planet.
All that being said, if he does not win the title this year, a lot will change between now and next year’s event.
Time always gets the last laugh
It’s easy to forget how old Djokovic. Considering that his primary rivals, Rafael Nadal, and Roger Federer, are waning in their talents as they age while Djokovic continues to excel, he often comes off looking like a much younger man. In reality, the Serb will be 29 on Sunday. If he does not win the title this year, he will be 30 when he makes his bid next year. In the Open Era, only nine men have won major titles after turning 30. Four of them won the French Open.
That’s not to say that Djokovic cannot win the French Open after he turns 30, but it will only get harder. Eventually, he will begin to slow down physically. Especially with his slow, grinding game, it will be tougher for him to physically keep up with younger, fitter players. And in today’s game, young players are getting fitter and stronger.
Compared to his contemporaries, Djokovic has been very lucky with avoiding major injuries. Again, over time, his risk of injuries will only increase. That heavy baseline game treads the line very finely and while he’s youngish and fit, he can continue to avoid them. But just look at Roger Federer. The Swiss avoided injuries until he was in his early 30s, at which point a back injury nearly ended his career. This season, knee and back injuries have limited Federer’s action. As he ages, Djokovic runs the risk of following suit. And there is no major tougher to win with physical limitations than the French Open.
The next generation are coming
One reason the big four have been able to dominate as long as they have is the lack of high-level opposition. While there have been some good players on the tour over the past ten years, there have not been any players capable of downing the big four. But no period of dominance lasts forever. The tour caught up with Rod Laver, Bjorn Borg, Pete Sampras and Roger Federer, and it will catch up to Djokovic too.
While Kei Nishikori and Milos Raonic, the representatives of the lost generation, may never be great champions, they are both improving and could pose serious problems for the big four over the next couple of years. Then there are the likes of Nick Kyrgios and Dominic Thiem, who are progressing very quickly and experiencing good results on clay. In a year or two, they could be serious contenders for a French Open crown. And against an older Djokovic, they might actually have the advantage in those matches.
One thing that has changed over the years, and you can probably thank the big four for this, is that younger players are getting better on all surfaces. Players like Raonic and Kyrgios, who play styles that traditionally struggle on clay, have found some measure of success on clay. Most players who are up-and-coming on the tour are strong on the dirt. The draws at Roland Garros are only going to get deeper. While Djokovic may remain head-and-shoulders above the tour for several more years on hard courts, it will only get harder for him to break through at his weakest major.
Fear is gone
Right now, Djokovic is primed to win the French Open because the rest of the tour is afraid of him. While the levels of fear vary, and it does not stop most players from throwing everything they’ve got at Djokovic, pretty much everyone goes into a match with Djokovic knowing that it’s going to take something special for them to win. One place where that is not entirely the case is the French Open. Since Djokovic has never won it, he does not have that same aura of invincibility in Paris.
There is a certain amount that carries over from his success outside of Paris, it grows weaker with every year that he does not win. The more he loses at Roland Garros, the more opponents will believe that they can beat him. Even this year, there is a bit more doubt as he had a far from impressive clay court season. In 2011 and 2015, he came in having won a pair of clay court Masters 1000 titles and could not claim the French Open. This year, he’s coming off only one, and an unimpressive one at that. If he does not win this year, it is highly unlikely that he will have that immediate mental advantage in Paris in the future.
If you don’t think that having the rest of the tour fear you is a factor in winning majors, just ask Rafael Nadal and Roger Federer, who could beat opponents just by showing up in their prime. In fact, there are days on hard courts when Djokovic wins just because of his mere presence. But the French Open is not one of them. And it won’t be if he continues to fail to win the title.
Generally, in life, when you fail at something over and over again, you start to believe that you will never accomplish it. This feeling, while pessimistic, is common. And it happens on the tennis tour all the time. If someone loses to the same opponent over and over, or can’t win a much-desired title and constantly falls short, there comes a time when they stop believing they will ever succeed.
While Djokovic certainly believes that he will win the French Open, and he has every reason to believe that he will if he loses again this year, he will start to run the risk of thinking he will never win it. A loss this year would mark five straight years when he arguably should have won the title. With the tasks only getting more difficult, all the missed opportunities will certainly weigh on his mind, which will only make it tougher for him to eventually break through and win this title. After missing yet another great chance to win the title as the favourite, these missed opportunities will only serve to haunt the world number one, which will only hinder his hopes in Paris.
There is perhaps no tougher test in tennis than the French Open. It’s the most physically challenging tournament on the planet and pushes players to their absolute limit. While Novak Djokovic absolutely can win the French Open, this year may be his last great chance to win the title. Things are only going to get harder for the world number one the longer he fails to cross the finish line at Roland Garros. If he does not win this year, he will start to run the risk of falling just short of advancing to the next level of greatness.