2012 French Open: Novak Djokovic v Potito Starace
The current US Open, Australian Open and Wimbledon champion, Novak Djokovic opens his campaign to become the first player since Rod Laver to hold all four Grand Slam titles against unfancied Italian veteran Potito Starace on Court Philippe Chatrier on Monday.
Djokovic begins his challenge for the Roland Garros title, the only Grand Slam he has yet to win, safe in the knowledge that providing he plays anywhere near his potential he should be too strong for the world number 97.
The stats don’t just plead in his favour, they positively scream. Here is a player at the very peak of his powers who, should he prevail in the final a week on Sunday, would be immortalised as one of the very greatest. Carried by his thunderously powerful game, and pushed by the rivalry engendered by the ‘big four’ these past few years, Djokovic has become a sporting phenomenon, the worthy winner of the 2011 Laureus World Sportsman of the Year.
Emerging from the shadow of Nadal and Federer by claiming his first Grand Slam title in Australia back in 2008, few would have predicted that the likeable Serb would take the tennis world by storm in 2011, winning three Grand Slams, missing out on the French Open only when shocked by Roger Federer in an epic semi-final (7-6, 6-3, 3-6, 7-6).
That step-up to world number one status and beyond has come as a result of a more aggressive game plan, incredible athleticism born of a strict fitness regime, and the accompanying stamina that has seen him through some amazingly long drawn-out matches, most memorably at this year’s Australian Open.
Crucially, Novak has forged the mentality to withstand the added pressure that comes with the top seed status. Indeed, he has appeared to thrive on his new standing in the game, winning admirers the world over with his evident desire to carry on having fun, both on and off court.
And yet there is little doubt that he remains the underdog here, where Rafael Nadal has made the Parisian clay his home. The Spaniard has only ever been beaten once (by Robin Soderling in 2009). Djokovic’s long winning streak over Nadal, seven matches in all, has come to an end in recent weeks, first in Monaco and then in Rome.
So the question remains. Even if Djokovic plays at his very best, will that ever be good enough against the King of Clay himself. Can Djokovic find a way to counter the Spaniard’s topspin game and emerge victorious in Paris? All that will have to wait of course, and depends very much on both players getting past some considerable obstacles along the way, including the likes of Roger Federer and Andy Murray.
So what hope Potito Starace? Very little of course, but he will enjoy his time in the sun, just as it appears it is setting on a career that has had highlights of its own, including a career high ranking of 27, back in 2007, and four ATP finals, the last of which came last year in Casablanca. Now 30, the Italian plays with no little flair, and will look for outright winners wherever possible, aware that he has little chance in longer rallies.
In all likelihood though, this should be a routine straight sets win for Djokovic, as he eases into the tournament that could set the seal on his greatness. Never again may he be so close to the “Novak Slam”, and he is extremeley unlikely to throw away that chance against Starace.