PARIS — Novak Djokovic will be celebrating his 29th birthday when the French Open starts on Sunday. If nothing else, it underlines just how frustrating it has become for the top-ranked Serb to win the only major to elude him.
Djokovic, who has lost the past two finals here and three altogether, is playing his 12th tournament and would set a record for most appearances at Roland Garros before winning the title in the Open era. Four players – Stan Wawrinka last year, Roger Federer in 2009, Andre Agassi in 1999 and Andres Gomez in 1990 – all won on their 11th appearance. Goran Ivanisevic holds the Open era Grand Slam record of needing 14 attempts before winning Wimbledon in 2001.
Although Djokovic insists he is not “obsessed” with winning the elusive title, he may never get a better chance, because nine-time champion Rafael Nadal is still finding his best form on clay, Wawrinka has been erratic and the 17-time Grand Slam champion Federer is skipping the tournament to protect his troublesome back. Second-second Andy Murray could pose a serious threat, having beaten Djokovic in the Italian Open final last weekend.
“Of course I anticipate myself, as everybody else (does), to try to get my hands on this title this year,” Djokovic said. “Even if my career was done tomorrow, I made some achievements that I must be proud of. So that’s how I approach things. I don’t try to approach them from a point of view of being obsessed with this tournament or with any other tournament, for that matter.”
Federer has always been a huge fan’s favorite, wherever he plays, and the hard-to-please Parisian fans have warmly taken Nadal to their hearts since he won for the first time here as a scraggly-haired teenager in 2005.
Perhaps seeking that extra bit of energy to take him all the way, Djokovic clearly wants to get the French fans on his side.
This was evident on Saturday when, before starting his practice, he goofed around wearing a beret as he played the traditional French game called “petanque” – albeit with yellow tennis balls instead of those heavy metallic ones – and jokingly played around with a violin.
Or perhaps Djokovic is just trying to reduce the pressure and expectations. It’s not hard to see why because, since the start of 2015, he’s 119-9 overall, winning four majors and 16 titles – including a tour-leading five this year.
He has won 11 majors and could yet equal Nadal’s haul of 14 by the end of the year.
When Djokovic lost the 2014 French Open final to Nadal, the Spaniard was still the player to beat on clay.
That’s now changed. Despite Nadal winning the Monte Carlo Masters for a ninth time in April and following up with a ninth success at Barcelona to equal Guillermo Vilas’ record of 49 career clay-court titles, he is in Djokovic’s shadow, even on clay.
Djokovic has beaten him seven consecutive times since that 2014 final – crushing him in three sets in the quarterfinals here last year and beating him twice more on clay, most recently in the quarterfinals of the Italian Open.
Enticingly, they could meet in the semifinals this year, which would be their 50th meeting and on Nadal’s 30th birthday – not that Nadal needs any extra motivation.
Djokovic leads him 26-23 in head-to-heads and this is his equal-best winning streak against Nadal, having previously beaten him seven consecutive times – all of them in finals: six in 2011 and then the 2012 Australian Open.
Nadal’s first-round opponent will be big-serving Sam Groth, an Australian ranked 95th.
“He’s a difficult one,” said Nadal, who has never played Groth. “I know he’s going to be difficult to have breaks against.”
Djokovic faces 100th-ranked Lu Yen-hsun while Murray opens against veteran Radek Stepanek, and Wawrinka has a tricky first match against hard-hitting Czech Lukas Rosol.
Defending champion Serena Williams is bidding for her fourth Roland Garros title and needs one more major to equal Steffi Graf’s record for the Open era, and three more to match Margaret Smith Court’s all-time mark of 24 majors.
The 34-year-old American, who will open against 76th-ranked Magdalena Rybarikova of Slovakia, has never won back-to-back French Open titles.
Sunday’s first-round men’s play features fifth-seeded Kei Nishikori of Japan, No. 8 Milos Raonic of Canada and big-hitting Australian Nick Kyrgios, while on the women’s side, No. 5 Simona Halep of Romania, 11th-seeded Czech Lucie Safarova – last year’s runner-up – and 2009 champion Svetlana Kuznetsova are playing. Also, No. 15 John Isner and No. 19 Sloane Stephens are among nine Americans in action.