The French Open title that has long eluded Novak Djokovic might just be ripe for the picking this year. The world’s No. 1 player should benefit not only from his extraordinary play in the first half of the ATP calendar, but also from nine-time French champion Rafael Nadal’s laborious and injury-laden start to the season.
Claiming three singles titles already and a 25-2 record, with no loss coming before the quarterfinals in any tournament, Djokovic might see the window opening for his first career French title. Battling through another spat of injuries and recently admitting to growing feelings of anxiety, Nadal has just a 15-5 record on the year and will enter Roland Garros next month in an unfamiliar position as the underdog to surging rival Djokovic.
After several impressive wins on hardcourt in 2015, the Serbian star will look to build momentum on clay. He just cruised into the third round of the Monte Carlo Masters by dismantling Spain’s Albert Ramos-Vinolas 6-1 6-4 over 86 minutes. Last year, Djokovic fell to Roger Federer in the Monte Carlo semis, but his overall stellar play was parlayed led to the second French final appearance of his career.
The trip to Monte Carlo is Djokovic’s first clay venture of the season, and it will undoubtedly serve as a training ground on the one outdoor slam surface that’s given him the most trouble over the years. Djokovic owns a .783 win percentage on clay, by far his lowest on any outdoor surface.
From the outside, the victory over No. 67-ranked Ramos-Vinolas might seem frivolous, yet for Djokovic it could represent a significant triumph over a well-schooled clay player. Clay is the only surface on which Ramos-Vinolas owns a winning record at 57-56, with sub-.350 winning percentages on hard court and grass.
"I felt very good," Djokovic told reporters after the match. "I thought, considering the amount of months that I haven't played on the clay courts, to play against somebody that is a clay-court specialist, and win in two sets, I thought it was a very good performance. I can just take positives from today.”
Djokovic next faces Austria’s Andreas Haider-Maurer, a player he’s never faced but who owns an 11-8 overall record this season and still needed three sets and two tiebreakers to get out of his second round matchup with Australia’s Bernard Tomic.
Nadal also coasted in the second round with a 6-2 6-1 sweep of 21-year-old Frenchman Lucas Pouille on Wednesday, which would typically serve as an indication that everything is just fine for the Spaniard.
However, given the wrist injury and appendicitis he dealt with last season, and the ankle injury scare that likely played in a role in his third-round exit in Miami last month, Nadal’s apparent brittleness will continue to be an issue and one Djokovic can maybe exploit in Paris.
The litany of injuries, or potential ones, could also mean Nadal makes an early departure in the French, and thus open the field up for Djokovic. In both of his trips to the French final, Djokovic faced Nadal and fell each time while claiming only two sets combined.
Odds makers have also taken notice of Nadal’s hiccups heading into the French. According to OddsChecker.com, Djokovic is a 28/17 favorite, just ahead of Nadal’s 7/4 odds and Stan Wawrinka’s 18/1. Kei Nishikori is a 22/1 favorite, while Federer is at 25/1.