Novak Djokovic’s bid to finally master clay and win the elusive French Open title starts with his title defence at the Monte Carlo Masters, where Rafael Nadal once crushed the competition.
The top-ranked Serb has won 11 grand slams but the French Open continues to elude him, having lost the final to Stan Wawrinka at Roland Garros last year and twice to Nadal.
“I don’t like the word ‘obsession’ because it doesn’t come from the right emotion,” Djokovic said on Sunday.
“But of course being the only grand slam I haven’t won gives me even more incentive to give my best there this year.”
Few would bet against Djokovic winning in Paris given his red-hot form but part of his renowned discipline involves stopping from looking that far ahead.
Nadal, who lost to Djokovic in the Monte Carlo semi-finals last year, won eight straight titles there from 2005-12 until Djokovic ended the Spaniard’s run in the 2013 final.
Winning Monte Carlo was always the springboard that led to victory in Paris, and he thinks it will be tough to stop Djokovic doing the same.
Since beating Djokovic in the 2013 US Open final, Nadal has lost 10 of their 11 meetings – the only win in that time coming when he beat Djokovic in the French Open final two years ago.
“He’s going to be the favourite for every tournament (until) somebody shows something different,” Nadal said Sunday with an air of inevitability.
“He is (playing) with an unbelievable dynamic.”
Since 2015, Djokovic has reached 19 finals in 21 tournaments, winning 15 and losing four finals.
In late February, he lost to Spaniard Feliciano Lopez in the Dubai quarterfinals – where Djokovic retired with of an eye infection after losing the first set.
That leaves big-serving Croat Ivo Karolovic as the only other to beat him outside of a final in that time, winning a hard-fought quarterfinal on outdoor hard courts in Doha, Qatar, in January 2015.
Djokovic’s recent win at the Miami Masters was a record 28th in Masters – one more than Nadal – and saw him equal Andre Agassi’s six titles in Miami as well as clinching the Indian Wells-Miami double for a third successive year.
“From one side, yes, I am pleasantly surprised with what I have achieved in last two years,” Djokovic said.
“From the other side, I’ve always expected myself to be at this level. Everybody peaks at different stages of their careers and for me it’s right now.”