The game is ruled these days by a pair of highly charged and deeply motivated champions. Serena Williams heads to Roland Garros striving for a third consecutive major title, hoping to collect a 20th “Big Four” career singles championship. She took an important precautionary step this past week, defaulting her third round match against countrywoman Christina McHale with an elbow injury in Rome, giving herself essential recuperative time for Roland Garros. Despite her Rome setback and a decisive loss to Petra Kvitova the previous week in Madrid, the world’s leading female competitor seems poised to collect a third singles crown in Paris.
Meanwhile, the top ranked man in the world keeps rolling inexorably from one high point to another. Novak Djokovic has won five singles titles already in 2015, and has secured four consecutive Masters 1000 tournaments this year, winning 22 consecutive matches in the process. His 6-4, 6-3 triumph in Rome over Roger Federer gave the Serbian a fourth Italian Open title, and a 24th Masters 1000 tournament triumph, allowing Djokovic to move past Federer into sole possession of second place in that category, only three titles behind Rafael Nadal. Djokovic is 53-23 in career finals overall, and 24-10 in Masters 1000 title round clashes. Those are lofty numbers.
The fact remains that he is only 8-7 in his final round appearances at the four Grand Slam events, and 0-2 at Roland Garros. Be that as it may, the view here is that Djokovic is going to establish himself in just under three weeks as only the eighth man ever to complete a career sweep of the four majors, joining Fred Perry, Don Budge, Roy Emerson, Rod Laver, Andre Agassi, Federer and Nadal in that elite career Grand Slam men’s club. If Djokovic realizes that substantial feat, it would be an entirely fitting achievement for a player of his ilk.
Djokovic took Federer apart in Rome more comprehensively than he has done in a very long time. He peaked for this final not only because he sorely wanted to maintain his winning streak and thus claim another crown, but in turn he needed to find a way to move convincingly past Federer as they clashed for the 39th time across their illustrious careers. Closing the gap in this remarkable rivalry to 20-19 for the Swiss Maestro, Djokovic performed stupendously, serving with immense accuracy and deception, backing up his delivery with a barrage of impeccably timed groundstrokes, returning with his customarily supreme authority, leaving Federer almost dumbfounded about how to find even a small chink in the Serbian’s armor. Since the start of 2014, Federer had accounted for Djokovic in four of their previous seven appointments, but in toppling the Swiss for the second time in a row, the world No. 1 was unstoppable. On the red clay, he was the decidedly better player from the backcourt, and his serve was superior as well.
The first set was hotly contested on both sides of the net, and the level of play was extraordinary. Djokovic set the tone in the opening game, holding at 15 with a terrific backhand crosscourt passing shot winner after Federer had chip-charged off the Serbian’s second serve. Federer countered by holding at 30 for 1-1, throwing in a kick first serve to the backhand to close out that game, drawing a return error from his opponent.
Yet Djokovic was fully in control of his surroundings and his emotions. He held at love for 2-1 without missing a first serve, releasing an ace down the T for 30-0, taking the last point with an effective first serve to his adversary’s forehand setting up a scorching forehand winner of his own. Federer was down 0-30 in the fourth game but he produced two aces on his way to 40-30. After two deuces, Federer moved to 2-2 with a scintillating topspin backhand winner down the line. Djokovic remained undaunted, holding at 15 for 3-2, reaching 40-15 with an exquisite backhand drop shot winner down the line, claiming the next point with the same shot, this time from well inside the court. Djokovic had the upper hand in most of the rallies, and his unforced errors were scarce.
Federer, however, was competing with quiet ferocity, and he made it to 3-3. An ace down the T lifted the Swiss to 30-15. He garnered the next point with a sidespin forehand drop shot winner, and then held at 15 with a well-directed first serve to the forehand eliciting an errant return. Djokovic responded by holding at 15 for 4-3, coaxing two more errant forehand returns from Federer, closing out that game with a first serve down the T setting up a clean forehand crosscourt winner. Federer mixed up his attack intelligently to reach 4-4, putting away a forehand volley for 15-15, serve-volleying to open up an avenue for a winning overhead that made it 30-15. He advanced to 40-15 when Djokovic—perhaps anticipating another serve-volley combination—netted a forehand return off a first serve. Federer held on with an ace down the T for 4-4.
The ninth game represented Federer’s lone chance to assert his authority meaningfully. Djokovic started with a double fault, and then missed a forehand approach off a biting, short chipped backhand return from the wily Federer. Djokovic unleashed back to back aces for 30-30, and reached 40-30 on an inside out forehand mistake from Federer. But Federer took the next two points. There he was at break point, and this would be the only one he would have in the entire match. Djokovic backed up his second serve superbly, releasing a series of inside out forehands that left Federer increasingly vulnerable on the backhand side. On the 20th stroke of that crucial exchange, Federer was forced into a sliced backhand wide as he went down the line to break the pattern. Having survived that critical moment, Djokovic would never look back.
He established a 5-4 lead with a forehand inside-in winner followed by an unstoppable first serve to the backhand. Despite missing five of ten first serves, Djokovic had held on calmly and resolutely. Serving to stay in the set, Federer was determined to hold on. At 15-30, he punched an elegant forehand volley down the line for a winner, and then went to 40-30 when Djokovic missed narrowly with a backhand. Federer’s first serve on that game point could hardly have been better, but Djokovic lunged to his left as only he can for a stretch backhand return that came back with interest. Federer was compromised by the depth of that shot and would lose the point with an errant forehand down the line.
The score was deuce. Federer retaliated with an ace down the T for a second game point, but Djokovic caught him off guard with a return down the middle. Federer flicked a forehand into the net. At deuce again, Federer went for the wide serve, but Djokovic anticipated that delivery beautifully. His scorching forehand crosscourt return was an outright winner that gave the Serbian a set point. Once more, the top seed made a remarkably deep backhand return on the stretch. On the fifteenth stroke of an absorbing rally, Federer erred off the backhand, driving that shot into the net. Djokovic had taken the set 6-4, and the lift he gained from those last two games clearly had a major bearing on the early stages of the second set.
Djokovic held routinely at 15 for 1-0, and then broke in the following game. Federer rallied gamely from 15-40 to deuce with a timely serve-volley point followed by a spectacular topspin backhand winner down the line off an acutely angled Djokovic service return. That was Federer’s shot of the match, but Djokovic was totally on task. His running forehand crosscourt rushed Federer into a mistake. Down break point for the third time, beleaguered and running out of options, knowing precisely what he was up against, Federer pressed flagrantly, netting a forehand inside out off a short return from Djokovic. The Serbian promptly held at love for 3-0, connecting with first serves on all four points. He had won five games in a row to put himself in a commanding position.
Federer was down 30-40 in the fourth game, one point away from trailing by a set and two breaks. But he bailed himself out in exemplary fashion, serve-volleying behind a kick first delivery, punching a backhand first volley down the line into a wide open space. He then produced a service winner and an ace down the T to hold on for 1-3. The Italian crowd was thirsting for a closer contest and a reversal of fortunes for the universally revered Federer, but it was not to be. Djokovic was largely invulnerable. He held at 15 with an ace out wide for 4-1. Federer fought on with professionalism but apparent resignation. He held at 15 for 2-4, but Djokovic replicated that feat in extending his lead to 5-2.
Federer held one last time at 15 for 3-5, and now it was time for the Serbian to serve for the match. The cognoscenti of tennis recalled how Djokovic led two sets to one and 5-2 in the fourth set of the Wimbledon final last summer before carving out an exhilarating yet harrowing five set victory, and vividly recollected the world No. 1 leading by a set and 4-2 (with a break point for 5-2) in the Indian Wells final against Federer a few months ago. Djokovic tightened up but then built a 5-4 second set tie-break lead before serving consecutive double faults. He lost the set but summoned the will to take the match, yet clearly his nerves had surfaced significantly in both of those matches. Would it happen again on the clay in Rome? Not this time. Djokovic held at 15 to close out the 6-4, 6-3 account, extending his winning streak to 37 matches in a row at the sport’s premier events (Masters 1000, Barclays ATP World Tour Finals, and, of course, majors).
Djokovic won 42 of 53 points across his ten service games, winning 84% of his first serve points and 67% on second serve. Federer was at 77% on first serves but a dismal 35% on his second delivery. The world No. 2 was soundly defeated by the game’s greatest player, and seldom has Djokovic outclassed his rival so thoroughly. He had not played since ruling in Monte Carlo three weeks earlier, and that decision was demonstrably wise. He commenced his duties in Rome with three set victories over Nicolas Almagro, Thomas Bellucci and Kei Nishikori (taking the latter contest 6-1 in the final set), but then handled David Ferrer in straight sets before subduing Federer. Djokovic will head into Roland Garros with soaring confidence, a body not overtaxed, a sense of being on a clear mission, and a mind uncluttered.That will not necessarily be the case with Rafael Nadal, who is hoping to win not only his sixth crown in a row at Paris, but in addition his tenth Roland Garros title overall. Nadal has been an ironclad figure at Roland Garros, losing only once against Robin Soderling in the round of 16 back in 2009. But for the first time since he started competing at the French Open in 2005, he will come into the tournament without having won a title on the European clay. Beaten by Djokovic in the semifinals of Monte Carlo by Djokovic, ousted by Fabio Fognini in the round of 16 at Barcelona, crushed by Andy Murray in the final of Madrid, Nadal advanced to the quarterfinals of Rome with an uplifting triumph over John Isner. He faced Stan Wawrinka for the first time since losing to the Swiss for the first time in 13 career meetings at the 2014 Australian Open.
Wawrinka had been in a long slump since February of 2015, but he came mightily alive against Nadal and stole the first set with verve, temerity and some astonishing clutch play. As has been the case all spring, Nadal was found wanting despite giving himself every conceivable chance to succeed. He broke in the opening game of the match and had 30-0 in the next game, but Wawrinka broke back. Nadal served with a 4-3, 30-15 lead in that first set but missed a couple of forehand approach shots that he ordinarily handles with ease, and then Wawrinka stung him with a daring forehand inside in winner.
On they travelled to a tie-break, and Nadal led 6-2 in that sequence. Wawrinka saved the first set point on his own serve by making a superb and unanswerable backhand approach volley crosscourt. With Nadal serving at 6-3, Wawrinka attacked again, coming in on a forehand down the line, putting away a forehand volley crosscourt. At 6-4, Nadal threw up a magnificent defensive lob down the middle, forcing Wawrinka to retreat from the net. But the Swiss took his overhead confidently on the bounce, sending it deep to the Nadal backhand. Nadal managed to steer a backhand reasonably deep off that smash, but Wawrinka crushed a forehand and came in again, forcing an outstretched Nadal into an error.
Serving at 5-6, Wawrinka directed his delivery perfectly down the T, followed it in, and emphatically dispatched a forehand volley well out of the Spaniard’s reach. It was 6-6. Nadal could not contain Wawrinka, who came forward for another forehand volley winner. Nadal saved a set point himself at 6-7 with a sparkling inside out forehand winner, but Wawrinka answered with a breathtaking forehand winner down the line from well behind the court. He then approached the net again to coax a forehand error from Nadal, winning the tie-break 9-7. Nadal remained impassioned and unflinching, but there was not much he could do to thwart an almost madly inspired rival. Wawrinka prevailed 7-6 (7), 6-2. One day later, Wawrinka came down to earth and performed tamely in a straight set loss to Federer.
Meanwhile, Maria Sharapova won her 35th career singles championship, her eleventh event on clay and her first title of the 2015 season on the dirt with a predictably arduous triumph over the vastly improved Carla Suarez Navarro. Sharapova came from behind with typical spirit and perspicacity, winning 4-6, 7-5, 6-1. She missed an early opportunity to break, squandering three break points for 3-1. That cost her the second set. Sharapova led 3-1 in that second set but Suarez Navarro rallied to 5-5, two games from a straight set victory. But it was strikingly clear that Suarez Navarro was either going to win in two sets, or not at all.
She had barely survived a rigorous skirmish with Eugenie Bouchard in the round of 16, winning that encounter 6-7 (2), 7-5, 7-6 (7). Bouchard served for the match three times and was later one point away from victory, but the Canadian double faulted on match point. Suarez Navarro later demolished Petra Kvitova in straight sets. In the semifinals, Suarez Navarro overcame 2014 French Open finalist Simona Halep, toppling the No. 2 seed 2-6, 6-3, 7-5. By the third set of her clash with Sharapova, despite breaking serve at the start, Suarez Navarro was spent. Sharapova swept six games in a row for the win.
And yet, Suarez Navarro had made it to her third final of 2015. Suarez Navarro has been to the quarterfinals twice at Roland Garros, including last year. She is a viable contender at the world’s premier clay court tournament for the first time this year. Her heavy topspin off both sides can be burdensome for all of her rivals, with the lone exception of Serena Williams. Williams, of course, has demonstrated repeatedly her penchant for dissecting all of her key rivals among the top ten; what she must avoid is an early round stumble against less familiar opposition.
In the final analysis, Williams is the woman to beat. She will be primed for this event in every way. Sharapova has moved back to No. 2 in the world, which is not insignificant. She has not defeated Serena since the end of 2004, losing sixteen times in a row to her foremost rival, most recently in the Australian Open final. But Roland Garros is the only major Sharapova has taken twice, and these days her game somehow translates better to clay than any other surface. Aside from Williams, she has the best chance to prevail on the clay in Paris. Halep will be right in the hunt, and she may have the best chance to stop Williams of any top player. Others who will be in the thick of the battle are two-time Wimbledon champion Kvitova, a singularly brilliant left-handed shot maker; Caroline Wozniacki, who is still searching for that elusive first major crown; and perhaps Angelique Kerber, an industrious lefty who was very impressive in overcoming Wozniacki to secure the title in Stuttgart on the clay.
The women should have a compelling tournament from start to finish this year. But the intrigue surrounding the men will be even greater. Realistically, only four men would seem to have a serious chance to win the most important clay court tournament in tennis: Djokovic, Nadal, Federer and Murray. Nishikori has an outside shot but his form on the clay—aside from a triumph in Barcelona—has not been encouraging for his growing band of supporters. 2013 finalist David Ferrer can be a factor but I doubt he can win it. Tomas Berdych could reach the semifinals or possibly the final, but it is hard to imagine him lifting the trophy.
Murray’s back to back clay court championship runs in Munich and Madrid—the first titles he has ever taken on the dirt—were ample evidence of his propensity to go deep and possibly win the French Open, where he has twice been a semifinalist. Federer, of course, was victorious on 2009 and has been a finalist four times as well. He is almost always inspired at Roland Garros, but surviving seven best of five sets across a fortnight on clay may be beyond him.
In the end, it all should come down to Djokovic and Nadal. The Spaniard will be seeded seventh, and he could meet Djokovic as early as the quarterfinals, or as late as the final. He looks fine physically but the man renowned for his inner strength has been sharply off his mental game lately. I still envision him beating anyone else but Djokovic, and the Spaniard could even upend the Serbian for the seventh time without a loss on the world’s most renowned clay court stage under the right circumstances. Nadal’s willpower is second to none in the sport of tennis.
And yet, the feeling grows that this is Djokovic’s year at Roland Garros. In 2011, he had an even more dominant start to the year, winning seven consecutive tournaments and 41 matches in a row before losing to Federer in a classic semifinal. He met misfortune on that occasion because, after charging through the first four rounds, he did not have to step on court for a quarterfinal. Fabio Fognini defaulted. After four days off, Djokovic looked rusty and out of rhythm against a top of the line Federer, and bowed out in four after serving to bring the match into a fifth set.
Would Djokovic have beaten Nadal that year in the final? He had achieved his first two clay court victories over the Spaniard in Rome and Madrid that season, but was probably not emotionally prepared to pass the incomparable test of toppling Nadal at Roland Garros. Nadal has lost only once in his career in a best of five set match on clay. In 2012, Djokovic lost a four set final to Nadal. A year later, he fell in an epic to the same fellow, losing gallantly 9-7 in the fifth set. Last year, Djokovic took the first set from Nadal in the final but was beaten in four.
This time around, Djokovic has paved the road for himself as smoothly as he possibly could. He is now the best player in the world on every surface. It is time for Djokovic to demonstrate once and for all that he can and will be the last man standing on the slow red clay of Roland Garros. I believe he will do just that.
Steve Flink has been reporting on tennis since 1974. He has been a columnist for tennischannel.com since 2007. You can purchase Steve's latest book "The Greatest Tennis Matches of All Time" here.
See the updated list of all the Grand Slam winners