The Eyes of Roland Garros
May 22, 2011 -- Tennis may well be an international sport, but you seldom know it by the coverage. This French Open, though, will be different.
Sports Illustrated, the paragon of sports news, boldly announced that Novak Djokovic is the 'most dominant athlete on the planet' in a banner sprawled across its May cover. American great Pete Sampras didn't get that type of ink when he topped Roy Emerson's Grand Slam record at Wimbledon in 2000 with his 13th Major.
So why did Novak Djokovic get the publicity from a magazine more attuned to readers who thirst for in-depth analysis of football, baseball and basketball?
Simply put, the Serbian Djokovic deserved it.
He has emphatically dominated men's tennis this year, and no one could argue differently. His 38-0 match record is second to John McEnroe's 42-0 record of 1984 that came, some would say ironically, to a halt against Ivan Lendl at that year's French Open. As McEnroe tweeted this morning, "It's probably the one record, or one of the few, I have left."
Few records left or not, McEnroe made sure he spread the good news about the venerated magazine's cover, saying it's "nothing but good news for tennis," as he called one of the first matches between French hopeful Jo-Wilfred Tsonga and Jan Hajek, a well-known journeyman according to McEnroe.
Novak's dominance was sparked in December, as his Serbian Davis Cup team took apart France. Serbia needed a leader to emerge from its team and Djokovic took to the role eagerly. The country's much maligned history from the 1990s, when it attacked neighboring Bosnia, Slovenia, and Croatia through policies of ethnic cleansing dictated by President Slobodan Milosevic, cried out for a younger more charismatic image to divert attention from that dark decade.
Djokovic was still a teen when NATO-lead forces bombed his country. His memories must be vivid. So his role as a tennis force provides the sport as well as Serbia a dual purpose. He will help steer it toward something that will build a positive image while he accumulates thousands of ATP points that threaten the hold Rafael Nadal has on the #1 ranking.
Mats Wilander, in a recent interview about parents who coach their kids, said emphatically that Novak always had the talent, but that his attitude held him back.
"He was a whiny drama queen. He could always play," Wilander began. "Not until he won a couple rounds of Davis Cup last year with four players older than him, with a coach older than him, with a country on his shoulders did he get it. He was suddenly reduced to the youngest kid on his team. He had a responsibility to try as hard as he could for his teammates. It worked. He realized that it wasn't about me -- Novak Djokovic -- but about his teammates and the sport. And that he liked it and wanted to get better."
His love of the game along with his recently aroused and probable intrinsic nationalism, if we take Wilander's lead, has transformed Novak into a player who comes to a match inside the elusive 'zone.' He doesn't need a few games or a first set to kick-start his competitive juices. He deeply believes he can beat the best. And he has. Nadal, Federer and Murray know it for a fact.
"[My] number one ranking is not in danger -- it's finished. Let's not lie to ourselves." This came from a frank Nadal after his defeat at the hands of Djokovic in Madrid. We can only imagine that the same thought ran through Nadal's mind the following week after the Rome final. He lost again to Djokovic in a bitter-feeling match that stretched both men to play their best tennis.
If Djokovic makes his first final at Roland Garros, he will overtake Nadal as the number one player in the world. He doesn't have to win the title, just land up in the final.
That's why this Major has so much at stake and could earn more media attention. With Djokovic's seven straight titles -- four over Rafael -- the pressure lands squarely on the shoulders of the Spaniard to perform better than he has ever performed, although Djokovic remains respectful of Nadal's record in Paris.
"'I don't want to be unnaturally modest,'" he said today to Malcolm Folley in an articled published in the DailyMail.com. "But Rafa deserves to be [the] favourite. He's lost only one match at Roland Garros; and, he's the most successful player ever to play this game on clay.'"
Nadal's loss to Robin Soderling in 2009 spurred the Spaniard to improve his game and take better care of his health, in a year marred by the divorce of his parents. His fifth Roland Garros trophy in 2010, plus his Wimbledon and U. S. Open titles last year, gave Nadal a poll position in Melbourne this January. If he could spend the accumulated tennis capital and win the Australian Open, he would win four consecutive Majors. But he failed at the hands of David Ferrer in straight sets during the quarterfinals, popping the bubble of an elusive mastery not meant to be.
Any tennis fan that has witnessed Djokovic's climb to thirty-eight straight victories realizes that his career has come together. All the strings attached to his lifetime pursuit of becoming number one, all the elements that comprise a day in his life as a world-class athlete, have been drawn in simultaneously.
His nagging problem with breathing is gone. His annoying behavior to quit matches due to any and all excuses -- he once retired in the quarterfinals of Monte Carlo against Federer, citing a soar throat -- has vanished. His on-court drama of faux injuries has been cut to a minimum. His cute and funny antics, where he'd mimic a player in front of a packed stadium, are a thing for the tennis history e-books.
He travels with an overflowing support group, an entourage that includes a nutritionist. He has become a man for all occasions, too, recently being photographed on the red carpet at The Cannes Film Festival with Jelena Ristic, his girlfriend of five years with whom he shares a home in Monte Carlo.
The red clay of Roland Garros may be Rafael Nadal's turf, but Novak Djokovic has certainly turned the cameras in his direction and put the pressure directly on Rafa this fortnight, especially when he could tie the record set by Bjorn Borg -- six French Open championships.
Djokovic will take his stellar start of the year into his first round match at the 2011 Roland Garros tomorrow against little-known Thiemo De Bakker of the Netherlands. Projecting that he gets through this, Djokovic's draw will plant him across the net from some fierce competition, especially a probable third-round matchup with Juan Martin del Potro. The lanky Argentine could cause Novak heaps of trouble, just ask Roger Federer who was up a set and 5-2 in the second against Del Potro in the 2010 U. S. Open final and lost it in five.
But as things stand today, the first day of competition, Novak Djokovic really has nothing left to do but continue along his merry path. He shouldn't stop and think too much about what has transpired since January, either. It might upset his mental outlook, a lock-tight compartment of vision that many would like to peer inside. Who wouldn't want to know the Djokovic formula?
Thankfully, though, some mysteries are better left to the spiritual realm. At least that gives the media lots to write about.