Djokovic the man to beat in Paris

Only injury or suffocating pressure can seemingly stop Novak Djokovic from completing a fabled career grand slam with long-awaited French Open glory.

The world No.1 enters the claycourt major starting on Sunday an odds-on prospect after raising a fourth Masters 1000 trophy of the season in Rome and looking untouchable as he rides a 22-match winning streak.

Djokovic has barely lost a match since becoming a father for the first time last October and swept past world No.2 Roger Federer in straight sets in his last outing to add an exclamation mark to his clear title favouritism.

The Serb has arrived in Paris with high hopes before and departed disappointed, most notably in 2011 when Federer ended his spectacular 43-match unbeaten run in the semi-finals.

In 2012, when bidding to become the first man since Rod Laver in 1969 to hold all four grand slam trophies simultaneously, a controversial overnight suspension while he was poised to force the final against Rafael Nadal into a fifth and deciding set cruelly denied Djokovic.

Djokovic surrendered a 4-2 fifth-set advantage to Nadal in the 2013 semi-finals and was thwarted once again by the Spaniard in last year’s championship decider.

This year, though, Nadal looks a shadow of the claycourt colossus who boasts nine French Open crowns and whose lifetime record at Roland Garros stands at a staggering 66 wins – including six over Djokovic – and just one defeat.

Nadal has been trumped five times on dirt and his lone title so far in 2015, as he battles back from nagging injuries, came in Buenos Aires without having to beat a single player inside the world’s top 60.

Turning 28 on Friday, Djokovic believes his time has come and is vowing to stick to the formula that has yielded 12 titles in a rampant past 13 months.

“I don’t think that I need to gear up or do anything special in order to be successful at Roland Garros,” he said.

“I have been very close to that title before, played several finals. I just need to continue preparing myself for that event as I prepare for any other, try to keep the routine going and hope it will take me where I want to be.”

Seventh in the rankings after being unable to collect a European claycourt title en route to Paris for the first time in a decade is certainly not where Nadal wants to be.

Handed his lowest seeding since triumphing as a teenager on debut a decade ago, the 14-times grand slam champion looms more as an x-factor than fearsome force in Friday’s all-important draw.

The Majorcan’s malaise has Federer seeded to make the final for a sixth time but avoiding Nadal’s half of the draw will still be a relief to the defending champion’s chief rivals.

Turning 34 in August, Federer would likely need to conjure a first victory over Djokovic at a slam in three years – and possibly also a first against Nadal since 2007 – to become the oldest champion in more than four decades.

But the Swiss great dismisses the notion the tournament shapes as a battle in two.

“It’s all talk. In the end, the racquets do the talking,” Federer said.

“I hope it’s not just between the two of them.”

Andy Murray, a two-time semi-finalist in Paris, had failed to win a title on clay in 10 years but suddenly picked up two in six days in Munich and Madrid to emerge as a challenger.

But winless in his past seven meetings with Djokovic, doubts remain over the Scot’s capacity to conquer his career-long friend and foe in a best-of-five-set grand slam contest.

A breakthrough triumph at Roland Garros would place Djokovic alongside legends Laver, Federer, Nadal and Andre Agassi as only the fifth man in 47 years of professional tennis to win all four majors – Wimbledon, the Australian, French and US championships – at least once each.

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