Can Novak Djokovic Finally Get the French Open Monkey Off His Back?


The year’s second Grand Slam tournament is just around the corner, and all eyes will be on world number one Novak Djokovic as he attempts for the fifth time to complete his career Grand Slam

Djokovic will start as the favourite to finally win the French Open for the first time, having been denied by Rafael Nadal in the 2012 and 2014 finals, as well as in the 2013 semi-finals, and by Stan Wawrinka in last year’s final.

But as always, Nadal, Wawrinka and world number two Andy Murray, who defeated the Serb to win in Rome last week, will headline the contenders keen to stop Djokovic from finally completing his Grand Slam set.

Let’s now take a look at some of the contenders for the 2016 French Open men’s crown.

Novak Djokovic

Current world ranking: 1

Titles won this season to date: Doha, Australian Open, Indian Wells, Miami, Madrid

French Open history

Best result: Runner-up three times (2012, 2014 and 2015)

Perhaps losing to Andy Murray in the Rome final last week might be what Novak Djokovic needs.

It means the Serb will enter the French Open with little pressure, though he will be desperate to finally break his duck at Roland Garros, having blown his best chance yet last year when he lost to Stan Wawrinka in the final in four sets.

That came after he defeated Rafael Nadal in the quarter-finals, and required two days to defeat Murray in the semi-finals. Having to play across three days eventually contributed to his four-set defeat to Wawrinka.

This year the top seed will again start favourite ahead of the likes of defending champion Wawrinka, nine-times champion Rafael Nadal, world number two Andy Murray and 2009 champion Roger Federer.

Djokovic has continued to dominate in 2016, first winning a record sixth Australian Open crown, completing the Indian Wells and Miami double for the sixth consecutive year and winning the Madrid Masters for the second time after 2011.

However, he has also had the occasional slip-up; his quarter-final retirement-enforced loss to Feliciano Lopez in Dubai marked the first tournament since Doha in 2015 in which he failed to reach a final, while he was upset by rising Czech Jiri Vesely in his opening match at Monte Carlo last month.

All the clay court preparation the Serb has put into his pursuit for a maiden French Open title will count for nothing if he does not end up being mentioned in the same sentence as “champion” for the very first time on June 5.

Prediction: Champion

Andy Murray

Current world ranking: 2

Titles won this season to date: Rome

French Open history

Best result: Semi-finals three times (2011, 2014 and 2015)

2016 has been an eventful year to date for Andy Murray, in more ways than one.

The Scot kicked off his season with a fifth runner-up showing at the Australian Open, after which he became a father for the very first time when his wife Kim Sears gave birth to a baby daughter.

That was then followed by poor performances at Indian Wells and Miami, whereby he lost in the third round at both events.

Again the clay court season has brought out the best in Murray, first reaching the semi-finals in Monte Carlo where he lost to Rafael Nadal in three sets, and then reaching back-to-back finals in Madrid and Rome, winning the latter tournament.

His victory over Novak Djokovic in the Italian capital on his 29th birthday came after he ended a two-year coaching partnership with Amelie Mauresmo, and now it appears the Scot will play at Roland Garros without a coach.

The French Open remains the only Grand Slam tournament which Murray has yet to reach the final, but if he can continue on his recent good form, then anything could happen. Being seeded second means he won’t face to face Djokovic until the final, but he may have to face nine-times champion Nadal in the quarter-finals.

Prediction: Semi-finals

Stan Wawrinka

Current world ranking: 4

Titles won this season to date: Chennai, Dubai

French Open history

Best result: Won (2015)

Apart from titles in Chennai and Dubai, season 2016 hasn’t exactly quite gone to plan for reigning French Open champion Stan Wawrinka.

The 31-year-old first failed to reach the quarter-finals at the Australian Open for the first time since 2013, and also failed to reach the quarter-finals at four of the five Masters events this year to date.

But at the one event in which he did well, he lost to clay court king Rafael Nadal in the quarter-finals of the Monte Carlo Masters; he also reached the quarter-finals at a smaller event in Marseille where he lost to Benoit Paire, the same man he beat in his Rome opener last week before he lost to Juan Monaco in the third round.

It will now remain to be seen how Wawrinka fares in his French Open title defence.

As is the case this year, Wawrinka entered last year’s tournament with little expectation but defeated Roger Federer, Jo-Wilfried Tsonga and Novak Djokovic in succession to win his second Grand Slam title and deny the latter his chance to complete the Career Grand Slam.

His fourth seeding will mean that he cannot face any of Djokovic or Andy Murray until the semi-finals, while he cannot face third-seeded Federer until the final. He may, however, have to face nine-times champion Nadal in the quarter-finals.

So, can Wawrinka successfully defend his French Open title or will last year’s victory be exposed as a fluke?

Prediction: Semi-finals

Rafael Nadal

Current world ranking: 5

Titles won this season to date: Monte Carlo, Barcelona

French Open history

Australian Open result: First round

2016 has so far been one of mixed fortunes for nine-times French Open champion Rafael Nadal.

After starting the season by reaching the final and losing to Novak Djokovic in Doha, the Spaniard suffered his first ever first-round exit at the Australian Open, and suffered the ignominy of winning the tournament’s “wooden spoon” in doing so.

The 14-times Grand Slam champion then suffered from further disappointing results, losing a pair of clay court semi-finals in Buenos Aires and Rio before losing to Djokovic in the semi-finals at Indian Wells.

He was then forced to retire in his opening match at Miami, but by the time the European clay court swing came around, his form returned. The 29-year-old won titles in Monte Carlo and Barcelona, before losing to Murray and Djokovic in Madrid and Rome respectively.

Not for the first time, Nadal will not start as the favourite to win the French Open, which he has done nine times between 2005 and 2014 inclusive, with the only blot being in 2009 where he was upset by Robin Soderling in the fourth round.

That, and his straight-sets quarter-final defeat by Novak Djokovic last year stand as the only two defeats the Spaniard has suffered at Roland Garros since debuting eleven years ago.

While his form this year has been rather indifferent, Nadal will again be expected to make a deep run on the Parisian red clay, but his seeding of fifth could thrust him into a quarter-final showdown against either Djokovic or Wawrinka later on.

Prediction: Runner-up

Jo-Wilfried Tsonga

Local favourite Jo-Wilfried Tsonga will again carry the hopes of the home nation, who have not had a homegrown male champion since Yannick Noah in 1983. The 2008 Australian Open finalist was recently forced to withdraw from the Rome Masters due to injury, and it could impact on how he fares at RolandGarros.