Novak Djokovic is to renew his love-hate relationship with Roland Garros in the knowledge that it is himself rather than seemingly unsettled 12-time champion Rafael Nadal who could pose the greatest threat to winning a second Paris title and 18th Grand Slam crown.
The only man to beat Djokovic this year is Djokovic after the Serb’s hair-trigger temper prompted a sensational disqualification from the US Open.
The 33-year-old arrives in the French capital with a 31-1 record this year after his New York brain-fade was followed by a record 36th Masters title in Rome.
Djokovic’s 2016 triumph at Roland Garros allowed him to become only the third man after Don Budge and Rod Laver to hold all four Grand Slams at the same time.
Not even Nadal, the holder of 19 majors, or Roger Federer, with a record 20 Slams, can match that staggering achievement.
Federer will miss the French Open as he rehabs his injured knee, while Nadal has played just three matches since February, a rustiness evident in his quarter-final exit in Rome.
However, Djokovic refused to get carried away by his chances at Roland Garros ahead of today’s start in a wet and chilly Paris.
“It’s Nadal,” said the world No. 1 when pushed on who is the favorite. “You just can’t put anybody in front of him.”
Djokovic is right to be cautious after experiencing numerous low points on the red clay of Paris.
In the 2012 final against Nadal, having won eight games in a row, he was up a break and pushing to level the match at two sets apiece when rain brought an overnight suspension.
Play resumed the following day, but Djokovic’s momentum was lost and a double fault on championship point completed his misery.
Twelve months later, Djokovic was poised for a semi-final win over Nadal with just a routine putaway required to help give him a 5-3 final set lead and a chance to serve for the match.
However, he chose a smash rather than a soothing touch. He tumbled into the net, losing the point and Nadal pounced to eventually take the tie after 4 hours, 37 minutes.
In 2018, he lost a quarter-final to world No. 72 Marco Cecchinato, while last year he was beaten in the semi-finals by Dominic Thiem.
That match took two days to complete, featured numerous rain stoppages and winds so strong that a courtside umbrella was sent flying across the court.
Djokovic is to start his tournament against Sweden’s Mikael Ymer, the world No. 80.
Nadal, who skipped the defense of his US Open title, is seeking a 13th French Open.
Since his title-winning debut in 2005, the Spaniard has only lost twice at Roland Garros in 95 matches — to Robin Soderling in 2009 and Djokovic in 2015.
The 34-year-old might appear to be under-cooked after his last-eight exit in Rome to Diego Schwartzman.
However, the last time he suffered such an early departure from the Italian capital was in 2017 — just weeks later he was lifting a 10th French Open without dropping a set.
Nadal cut an unsettled figure at a pre-tournament news conference on Friday, at which he said that the cold and damp conditions forced him to face his “most difficult ever Roland Garros.”
He is also unhappy about using a new brand of ball.
“For the health of the players, the ball is super heavy and becomes dangerous for the elbow and for the shoulders,” he said.
Nadal begins his campaign against Egor Gerasimov, a Belarusian ranked 83rd.
The unusual sight of Roland Garros being played in the autumn also means radically different conditions to those expected in its normal time of May and June.
That could suit US Open winner Thiem, who has lost the past two finals to Nadal in Paris.
The world No. 3 has 17 career titles with 10 of those on clay.
Four of his five wins over Nadal have come on clay with three of four victories against Djokovic carved out on the sport’s most testing surface.
This year, Thiem is in the same half of the draw as Nadal and is to start against Marin Cilic, the 2014 US Open winner and a former world No. 3.
World No. 5 Daniil Medvedev has yet to win a match at the tournament in three visits, while sixth-ranked Stefanos Tsitsipas made the last 16 last year, losing a five-set marathon to 2015 champion Stanislas Wawrinka.
Wawrinka faces fellow three-time major winner Andy Murray in the first round today in a rematch of their 2017 semi-final epic, a tie which Murray described as the clash that “ended his hip.”
US-based Jason Jung of Taiwan is to play in today’s first round of the men’s singles.
Jung qualified for the event with two wins and a loss this week, downing Yosuke Watanuki of Japan 6-2, 6-0 on Monday and Tommy Robredo of Spain 6-4, 6-3 on Wednesday, but losing 3-6, 6-3, 3-6 to Aleksandar Vukic of Australia on Thursday.
He faces Frederico Coria of Argentina in the first round.
In the women’s singles, Hsieh Su-wei is to play Austrian Barbara Haas in the first round today.
Additional reporting by staff writer
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