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Is this Djokovic's year?

Sky Sports Sky Sports 19/05/2016


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It is the one major trophy missing from his collection, but is Novak Djokovic further away from winning the French Open this year than he was in 2015? James Walker-Roberts looks at his preparation and rivals... 

Even before beating Rafael Nadal in the quarter-finals in Paris last year, Djokovic was the favourite.

After seeing off the Spaniard in straight sets, even his semi-final opponent Andy Murray conceded this was the Serb's "best chance" to win the tournament.

Murray provided a stern test, taking Djokovic to five sets before he won his 28th match in a row.

But then came the Stan Wawrinka whirlwind. In just over three hours, Wawrinka hit almost 60 winners to stun Djokovic and win his second Grand Slam title.

Djokovic could barely hold back the tears in his post-match speech, but there would always be next year, wouldn't there?

Certainly at the start of 2016, before the European clay season started, he was the overwhelming favourite for the French Open. But his preparations have not exactly gone according to plan.

While he did win impressively in Madrid, that was after suffering a shock defeat to Jiri Vesely in his first match in Monaco. Then, most recently, came the Rome Masters.

After being bageled in a three-set win over Thomaz Bellucci, the Serb beat Nadal in a high-quality contest before battling past Kei Nishikori in the semi-finals. During that match, Djokovic was warned by the umpire for hitting a ball close to a ball boy in frustration, and there were more signs of annoyance in the final.

Djokovic complained to the umpire for not stopping play due to rain and also got a warning for bouncing his racket into the crowd during the surprisingly one-sided 6-3 6-3 defeat to Murray.

"The chair umpire was on fire today. He really wanted to show his authority to me. So congratulations to him," said the world No 1 afterwards.

Was the pressure of the upcoming French Open playing on Djokovic's mind? While he did have a tough schedule in Rome - not finishing his semi-final on Saturday until after 11pm -  there were signs that he was short on patience, even though he played it down after the final.

"I don't feel that I'm doubtful or I'm shaken up by this loss," he said. "Of course, you don't like to lose, but you've got to congratulate the better player that played well today, Andy, and he deserved to win. I move on to Paris knowing that I'm going to approach it hopefully healthy and refreshed and then giving it my all, as always." 

A three-time beaten finalist in Paris (2012, 2014 and 2015), Djokovic will start as the strong favourite again despite his defeats in Monaco and Rome. But he is not without challengers.

Murray in particular looks better placed than ever to compete for the title. Having reached the semi-finals in Monaco and final in Madrid, Murray's victory in Rome not only gave him a timely confidence boost but also saw him reclaim the world No 2 spot, meaning he could not meet Djokovic until the final in Paris.

"I'm going to Roland Garros with a lot of confidence and really good preparation. I feel like I'm on the right track. So hopefully I can have a good run there," he said after winning the Rome Masters.

Murray has enjoyed success on clay in the past, and pushed Djokovic close in five sets in Paris last year, but says he has a new-found belief on the surface.

"I had always been told that clay should really be my best surface, but it took me a long time to gain a little bit of confidence," he said. "But also I did make huge improvements in my movement on the surface, as well.

"That has changed my mentality when I go on the court a lot. I don't feel like I'm off-balance anymore and I feel like I can chase most balls down. It's an easy surface for me to move on now."

One man who has never had any trouble moving on clay is Nadal. After a spell of battling to find his best form, the nine-time French Open champion has shown signs of improvement over the last month, winning in Monaco and then going toe-to-toe with Djokovic in Rome.

Given he will be seeded fifth in Paris - and has lost the last 15 sets against Djokovic - he will be hoping to avoid the world No 1 until the final weekend.

Whatever the draw, though, the pressure will be on Djokovic again. Is this his year? Or will the wait go on?

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