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At the French Open, Novak Djokovic Again Aims for His 21st Slam Win

Novak Djokovic has been right here earlier than, nipping on the heels of main title No. 21.

He had an opportunity on the U.S. Open final summer time. Profitable the boys’s singles last towards Daniil Medvedev would have been a sign second in sports activities. Djokovic would have burst by means of the logjam he’d shared with Roger Federer and Rafael Nadal: 20 titles in majors, then the high-water mark in males’s tennis.

And Djokovic would have turn into the primary male participant since Rod Laver in 1969 to attain a Grand Slam, capturing Wimbledon and the French, Australian and U.S. Open titles in the identical yr.

It wasn’t to be.

Then he appeared destined to document his twenty first victory in a Grand Slam occasion at this yr’s Australian Open, the main the place he has emerged victorious 9 instances. He makes taking part in within the Melbourne hothouse seem like a stroll by means of a shady summer time backyard.

However we all know what occurred as an alternative.

Djokovic was detained after which deported after a tense standoff over whether or not he ought to be allowed to compete in Australia regardless of having proudly refused to be vaccinated towards the coronavirus.

Level made and the second misplaced by each the Australian authorities and one of many world’s best-known anti-vaccine athletes.

With the French Open underway, Djokovic is, in the end, attempting once more for his twenty first main win. By advantage of his No. 1 rating, he’s the highest seed within the males’s draw. “I’m going to Paris with confidence and good emotions about my possibilities there,” he stated earlier than the event.

He stated a lot the identical the final two instances he reached for the grail of 21 Grand Slam occasions. However it was Nadal who notched that historic document first, forward of Djokovic and Federer, when Nadal stepped again into the vaults of greatness and beat Medvedev on the Australian Open in jaw-dropping vogue.

Can Djokovic get out of the stall and tie Nadal? If he doesn’t do it quickly he might start drawing comparisons with an equally proficient, complicated and perplexing champion — Serena Williams, who stays caught one main behind Margaret Court docket’s document mark of 24.

Like Williams, who at 40 will not be taking part in on the tour and could also be heading towards retirement, Djokovic faces snarling strain to maintain up along with his friends. It isn’t getting any simpler. On Sunday, he turned 35. His window is closing — the flexibility to name on match-to-match consistency narrows with every grinding season.

Think about all he has confronted this yr. International anger over his dedication to keep away from vaccination. The hangover from the crushing loss within the last of the U.S. Open. The months when he appeared like a meager facsimile of his outdated self on the tennis courtroom.

After Australia, he was barred from taking part in in two huge hardcourt tournaments, in Indian Wells and Miami, as a result of the US correctly required international guests to be vaccinated to enter the nation. Then got here a stretch of uneven, angst-riddled play, which we had not seen from him in years. There have been early-round defeats to the 123rd and forty sixth gamers on the earth. Earlier than adoring hometown followers, he struggled by means of the Serbia Open and crumbled within the finals. He fell in Madrid to the 19-year-old Spanish upstart Carlos Alcaraz.

Can Djokovic win his twenty first on the French Open? There was little trace he can be as much as the duty till this month in Rome, on the final huge tuneup earlier than Roland Garros.

In Rome, it was all there once more for Djokovic: lithe, deep and constant returns, a pickpocket’s moxie in the course of the tensest moments. Djokovic didn’t lose a set all event. Within the last, the place he defeated fourth-ranked Stefanos Tsitsipas, he took the opening stanza, 6-0.

He appeared again on Australia and the brutal aftermath in a information convention and spoke of how the expertise wouldn’t bow him. Djokovic promised to show the jagged ache of getting been barred from play and the strain he felt from the backlash to his favor. “It’ll gas me,” he stated, steely eyed, “for the following problem.”

Such a mind-set is as classic Djokovic as his scythe-like down-the-line backhand.

Left unmentioned was how he has been hailed a hero among the many anti-vaccine crowd for his refusenik stance, a view that’s unattainable to fathom when the coronavirus has triggered the demise of a minimum of six million folks throughout the globe. He has even vowed that if it got here between selecting whether or not to be vaccinated or maintain taking part in skilled tennis, he would stay on the sideline.

His dedication to that stance is silly, however his resistance provides a window into what makes Djokovic tick. Enduring stubbornness units him aside greater than his motion, consistency or dart-like accuracy.

He’s a real believer — on the courtroom and off it — and he has lengthy latched himself to a few of the self-help motion’s wildest false claims, every little thing from telepathy to the notion that loving ideas can change the molecular construction of water.

Now you would possibly assume these concepts are fairly ridiculous. I positive do. However for Djokovic, clinging to perception in what could appear unattainable has labored in astonishing methods.

We’ve seen it numerous instances on the largest phases.

Keep in mind his nice escapes towards Federer. The victories after dealing with two match factors towards Federer’s serve on the U.S. Open in 2010 and 2011. The marathon last win at Wimbledon in 2019, when he turned Federer away after the grass-court grasp held one more pair of match factors.

I used to be there and might nonetheless hear the frenzied Centre Court docket crowd yelling, “Federer! Federer! Federer!” ringing in my ears. However that’s not what Djokovic heard. He stated after the match that because the roars rose like a storm for his opponent, he mentally transformed the rhythmic chants to one thing that spurred him on — “Novak! Novak! Novak!”

Keep in mind, too, the French Open of 2021, the bruising semifinal win towards Nadal, the latest act within the duo’s 58-match rivalry. The Serb adopted that with a comeback from two units down towards Tsitsipas to win the championship.

Now the French Open is once more underway. Victory at Roland Garros is as intense a journey as exists in sports activities — particularly now, as gamers deploy a mixture of energy, contact, bounding topspin and athleticism in ways in which not way back would have been unimaginable.

Age and years of leg-churning put on on tour add one other layer of problem. Have a look at Nadal, additionally 35 and at present battling foot and rib accidents extreme sufficient to stir rumors of imminent retirement.

These two will once more attempt to fend off a forged of youthful stars in Paris. They may have eyes regular on one specifically: Alcaraz, who performs with the limitless élan of a teen and a veteran’s knowledge and power.

All three are in the identical half of the attract Paris, bidding for a spot within the finals. Can Djokovic make it that far and at last win No. 21? I received’t wager towards a participant so able to conjuring unshakable magic.

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