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By Chris Oddo | Monday, April 20, 2015

 
Novak Djokovic, Monte-Carlo 2015

Novak Djokovic emerged victorious in Monte-Carlo, and the chase is on for pole position on the road to Roland Garros.

Photo Source: Monte-Carlo Rolex Masters

With the first red clay Masters 1000 in the books, we can officially say the European clay-court swing is in high gear. As the road to Roland Garros gears up in Barcelona and Bucharest this week, we’ve decided to make a brief pit stop to take stock of what we learned in Monte-Carlo.

1. Novak Djokovic’s Only Challenge? Not Peaking Too Early

Novak Djokovic is clearly embarking on what could be another historical year. We never thought we’d say this again after 2011 when the Serb went 70-6 with ten titles in eleven finals—including three majors—but Djokovic is in position to make a run at rivalling that en fuego season. Can he? Yes! He’s a cut above the rest of the field right now, and is seemingly in possession of a secret switch that can turn up the volume on his already invincible game to take it even higher.

More: Djokovic Claims 23rd Masters 1000 Crown in Monte-Carlo

Note how Djokovic notched crucial seventh games against Rafael Nadal in Saturday’s Monte-Carlo semifinal to grab a stranglehold on the match. Was it just dumb luck that he came out on top in those pivotal moments? We think no. Djokovic is pretty much always playing lights-out tennis these days, but there are brief interludes when he takes his game even higher than we thought it could go. Is he saving an extra gear for when it really matters? If he has enough game to win in fourth gear, why not avoid shifting to fifth unless the situation calls for it, right?

Another good example is Djokovic’s performance in the Australian Open final against Andy Murray. Deadlocked after two sets, Djokovic engaged the kill switch and took it up a notch, while Murray, fatigued and frustrated, could only wither and dry up while Djokovic blossomed at the finish.

But there’s a danger in all this domination, and we’ve seen what that can be in 2011, 2013 and 2014: Djokovic can run the table from now until the Roland Garros final, but if he ends up losing in Paris to Nadal, the crash might be too much to bear, both for his mindset and his legacy. That’s a lot of pressure. From now until the conclusion of the French, Djokovic's main mission should be to avoid peaking too early. Last season he was public about the fact that he felt he needed to pace himself and not think about the big picture too much. It seemed to be working when he dispatched Nadal in the Rome in true Djokovician fashion, but three weeks later, he was dead and buried in the final by a bristling, out-for-blood Nadal.

What are the ingredients of the recipe for Djokovic to finally bag that ever elusive French Open crown? That is the zillion dollar question.

Nadal is, was and always will be the king of clay, but for Djokovic to finally break through and earn his long-awaited career Grand Slam at Roland Garros, we think there’s only one thing he needs to do: Play his best tennis at Roland Garros rather than Monte-Carlo, Madrid or Rome. Easier said than done, however.

Another aside: In a strange way, a loss at one of the next two events—to Nadal or anyone else—might be just what the doctor ordered for Djokovic. He’s winning easily now and against all comers. He’s the hunted, not the hunter. Perhaps he has even forgotten how terrible the taste of losing can be on a player’s tongue (we don’t remember Djokovic’s last loss—does he?). Meanwhile, Nadal, is furiously working to find a way to GET THE TERRIBLE TASTE out of his mouth. There are psychological forces at work in this rivalry, and they will play a role at the finish line.

2. Playing Istanbul Was a Good Call for Federer

Roger Federer’s ambition is tempered on clay these days, and rightfully so. This is the turf of his rivals, so he can afford to walk his own path, and pretty much ignore any perceptions of pressure. For Federer, the decision to play Istanbul gives him a fun environment to gear up his clay game for Madrid (the clay Masters he seems to prefer), and a place to work on his game and fitness. In Istanbul, where he’ll have the chance to play four or five matches in five or six days, he could also benefit from gaining confidence if he picks up a title.

Unlike the other players, Federer can afford to approach the clay season with one eye on the grass season. Stay healthy, build the endurance and the shot tolerance, and let the chips fall where they may on the clay. Who knows, if the draw implodes, he could end up winning in Paris. Nobody expected it in 2009 either, but it happened.

3. Nadal’s Confidence Will Peak at Roland Garros

It’s been a long season already for Rafael Nadal. He had rust to contend with in the season’s first three months when he returned to action after what amounted to a six-month layoff. Then, when the vaunted game started to possess its polish again, a new malady struck Nadal—the lack of confidence. What? Nadal has always been able to ratchet up his focus under high pressure to win big points, so it seemed almost outlandish to watch him stumble and bumble in big moments earlier this spring. No player is immune, but for a player of Nadal’s clutchness, this was a surprise indeed.

Also See: Despite Monte-Carlo Loss, Nadal Seeing Many Positives in His Game

But if there is one player that can do anything when he sets his mind to it, it is Rafael Nadal. When he is a man on a mission it is best to wear flame retardant clothing when in his proximity, because he can heat up and stay hot, burning with desire to achieve. That’s Nadal. He’s perfected the art of falling off the horse and then, painfully and painstakingly, climbing back up until he is once again galloping and gobbling up titles—usually about this time of year.

It’s never without drama our doubt, but always it ends with peak Nadal, a clay beast that is so physical, so fiery and so determined, that opponents basically cower at the sight of him.

With three events left to go until the French, expect Nadal to be in Tasmanian Devil form by late May.

It creates a very interesting storyline for the next month. With Djokovic zoning so imperiously, the Serb will have to avoid looking over his shoulder at the Spaniard in the distance. Nadal may be a bit behind Djokovic in every way, but if we know a thing or two about the Spaniard, he is hell-bent on closing the gap and doing everything he can to prove that he can still be the king of clay.

So the race has begun. We’ve been remiss in this piece and haven’t made mention of the rest of the field. Rest assured, players like Kei Nishikori, David Ferrer, Tomas Berdych and many others will have a say on the clay this spring. There will be upsets, surprise performances, epic clashes, and the participants won’t always be Djokovic, Nadal or Federer. But for now, in the wake of a Monte-Carlo that saw Djokovic establish command over Nadal on clay, we thought it would be appropriate focus solely on these three larger-than-life characters.

Next week, in our Road to Roland Garros Breakdown, Part II, we’ll comb the field for some dark horse picks and look at the progress of Nadal, who has a very difficult draw in Barcelona this week. Until then, au revoir!

 

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