PARIS—The final stage of Novak Djokovic’s drive to complete a career Grand Slam, thereby joining the elite club whose membership also includes his rivals Roger Federer and Rafael Nadal, began today, in the second week of the 2014 French Open.
I draw a line of demarcation there for a number of reasons, starting with the fact that job number one for top contenders at any Slam is making it into the second week. And don’t underestimate the pressure that has never been more than a let cord or double fault away from Djokovic as he embarked on the this tournament and his quest. Like the calendar-year Grand Slam, you only get one chance a year to complete the career Slam—if it’s even a possibility at all.
Djokovic embarked on this last leg of his quest today with panache, terminating the hopes of Canadian ace-machine Milos Raonic. Djokovic manhandled the No. 8 seed much like he’s roughed up everyone else he’s come up against in Paris. Djokovic won 7-5, 7-6 (5), 6-4. Djokovic has a tough draw here, yet he's lost but one set, to Marin Cilic in the third round, and that in a tiebreaker.
“I’m trying to focus the attention only on the next match, so I don't think about eventual final,” Djokovic said, when he was asked how he saw his chances for winning the title were shaping up. “I think about only Gulbis. He's been playing really well. He's confident.
“But again, I like my chances because I have had now couple of great weeks on the clay courts from Rome to now last ten days here in Roland Garros. Two days off will definitely serve well now to recover, to work on some things on the practice courts, and then come back strong and prepare for the next challenge.”
It certainly seems like the stars are aligning for Djokovic. His wrist injury that played a role in his loss to Federer in Monte Carlo, and then forced Djokovic to take some time off? It has ceased to be a factor. His rivalry with Nadal? Djokovic has won their last four meetings, all in finals, the most recent just weeks ago on red clay in Rome, similar to the stuff here in Paris.
Djokovic’s personal life appears to be in a blissful—and blissfully uncomplicated—state. He’s engaged to be married, which is always the pre-honeymoon for any couple. On top of that, the terrible floods that ravaged his homeland in recent weeks have seemed to propel Djokovic to the height of his game. As others have observed, the Serb seems to play best when he’s inspired by a cause (most recently, the plight of the flood victims).
The other day, someone asked Djokovic which were the most cherished victories of his career, and he kept the response limited to two events: The Wimbledon final of 2011, because he beat Nadal and also took over the No. 1 ranking. The only other event to make the cut was the Davis Cup final of 2010, where Serbia defeated France. Djokovic says he’s even ironed out the kinks in the unusual coaching set-up that has his long-time coach Marian Vajda sharing duty with recent arrival Boris Becker.
“Well, I cannot tell you exact way we work together,” Djokovic said the other day. “I don't want you to discover everything, obviously. But we do have certain agreements and routines, daily routines, that we started respecting now that we are working as a team. Everybody's contributing in their own way to my performances and to my success.”
Last but by no means least, Djokovic’s great rival Nadal has had a relatively difficult spring. The only title he’s won this year on clay, a time when he usually cleans up, was that of Madrid. He’s clearly struggled with his confidence and the basic sense of security a top player needs to feel on the court. At times, he’s almost seemed a little haunted, and on top of everything else, the other day he complained about his back acting up, forcing him to slow down his serve during his third-round match. But it seemed to clear up with a day of rest.
My back can be pretty unpredictable,” Nadal said after he dismissed Dusan Lajovic with ease in the fourth round, hitting serves as fast as 119 M.P.H. “I’m not lying. It’s totally unpredictable. I don’t want to speak too much about it.”
Djokovic was dealt a tough draw here. He had early consultations with the Joao Sousa and Jeremy Chardy but the stakes ramped up quickly in the form of Cilic and Jo-Wilfried Tsonga. Now he’ll have to face a volatile, free-swinging surprise semifinalist, Ernests Gulbis.
Today Gulbis celebrated his win the other day over Roger Federer by tearing down a pretty big obstacle, No. 6 seed Tomas Berdych. Gulbis lost all of nine games in the three-set blow-out, and he’s loafing around on Cloud 9, without taking anything for granted.
The head-to-head between Djokovic and Gulbis is 4-1 to Djokovic, but they haven’t played since March 2011 (a 6-0, 6-1 rout by Djokovic at Indian Wells). Gulbis fired a shot over Djokovic’s bow after his match, declaring: “I think just for me it's 0-0 with him in matches. The way I'm playing now, I never played like this. I never felt like this. It's just 0-0. What was in the past I don't even consider.”
Gulbis is in the midst of a career makeover, having come to the realization that he enjoys the hard work that has propelled him onto the brink of the Top 10 (after this tournament). While his adolescent buddy Djokovic (the two were together at the age of around 14 at the Niki Pilic Tennis Academy in Germany) was winning Grand Slam titles these past few years, free-spirited Gulbis was living it up and ducking what he now welcomes—the routine of hard work and the rewards it brings.
“It was definitely a realization,” said Gulbis, who had both the advantages and liabilities of growing up in a fabulously rich family. “I just thought everything is gonna come too easy for me because everything in life was coming just—it was coming. I wasn't really thinking about it and not putting enough effort into it. I was in school. I never had problems in school. Everything was coming easy. All the information. Tennis, everything was coming easy. I thought I'm just gonna grind in life like this, easy without any effort, and be successful. And then... And then... (expletive deleted) happened.”
Gulbis grinned. He likes the attention. He’s been irreverent and ebullient in his press conferences, especially when compared with the senatorial Djokovic.
These two young men have walked very different paths, one a Spartan, the other a Sybarite. Who would you put your trust in?